The international jihad against tobacco.
The bill's opponents are no better. They'd rather stick with the idiotic current policy of letting the FDA regulate nicotine in gum and patches—its safest delivery vehicles—but not in cigarettes. They insist tobacco products can't be made safer or less addictive. That's just wrong. In addition to snus, one biotech company has already engineered tobacco plants that are almost nicotine-free.
A year ago, when a study showed an increase in cigarette nicotine levels, anti-smoking activists accused the tobacco industry of boosting its narcotic dosage to make people smoke more. But against the FDA bill, which would reduce nicotine levels, activists are making the opposite argument: that in order to get the same nicotine fix, people will be forced to smoke more cigarettes. Either way, they think manipulation is the problem. In the past, that was true. But today, manipulation is the solution.
Instead of indiscriminately vilifying tobacco, we should reengineer it. Bypass the combustion, purge the tar, dial down the nicotine—whatever serves public health. We could even use it to cure people. Two years ago, Henry Daniell, a biologist at the University of Central Florida, proved that an anthrax vaccine could be grown in genetically engineered tobacco. Tobacco was a logical vehicle, he said, because it was prolific and wouldn't end up in the food supply. Last month, he reported progress in growing a protein to prevent diabetes, but he had to do it in lettuce—a food supply risk—"due to the stigma associated with tobacco." When the war on smoking has come to this, it's time to step back and take a deep breath.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.