Tobacco's Great Escape

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 28 2009 9:05 AM

Tobacco's Great Escape

The war on tobacco is advancing. Smoking is losing. But tobacco is escaping.

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

How? Look at two articles published yesterday. A front-page story in the New York Times examined a new smoking ban in Belmont, Calif., which forbids lighting up even in your own apartment . The rationale: Smoke from your apartment drifts into your neighbors'. Studies have shown that secondhand smoke harms others. Science is dissolving the distinction between your space and mine.

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So tobacco is doomed, right?

Wrong. Smoking may be doomed, but tobacco is evolving into more elusive prey. Or, perhaps I should say, a more elusive predator. As Kevin Helliker reports in the Wall Street Journal , the industry is going smokeless .

Altria Group Inc., the nation's largest cigarette maker, this month completed its $10.3 billion purchase of UST Inc., the biggest smokeless-tobacco maker and owner of the Copenhagen and Skoal brands. Reynolds American Inc., which owns Conwood Co., a discount smokeless purveyor, this month announced that the Camel Snus brand has performed well enough in test markets to warrant national distribution.

Consumers—heck, let's just call them what they are, addicts—seem to be going with the transition. According to Helliker:

[M]ore Americans are continuing to give up smoking, helping to push cigarette consumption down about 3% each year. ... Morgan Stanley estimates that U.S. consumers spent $4.77 billion on smokeless tobacco in 2007 versus $78 billion on cigarettes. Smokeless-tobacco sales have been increasing about 5% or more a year. ... "There are probably in excess of 400,000 adults switching to smokeless each year," says Seth Moskowitz, a spokesman for Reynolds American.

Two months ago, I called smokeless tobacco " carcinogenic, addictive, and gross ." But guess what? It's becoming less gross:

For many people, smokeless tobacco conjures up an image of a wad of chewing tobacco bulging from the cheeks of users who spit brown juice. Instead, recent products consist of dissolvable pellets or tiny pouches of tobacco that reside invisibly in the mouth and induce no spitting.

And it's becoming less carcinogenic:

One recent study showed that some newer brands, with names like Ariva, Camel Snus and Marlboro Snus, have sharply lower levels of a dangerous carcinogen than do older varieties of smokeless tobacco, such as Copenhagen and Skoal. Britain's Royal College of Physicians, which sets health standards in the United Kingdom, has said smokeless tobacco is between one-tenth and one-one thousandth as hazardous as smoking, depending on the specific product.

So now we're down to addictiveness. And that, too, is adjustable:

The December study also found that Marlboro Snus contained a very low level of nicotine. By contrast, Camel Snus offers a jolt of nicotine that "has the potential to satisfy those smokers who are looking for a substitute to smoking, and to keep them addicted to this product," the authors said.

Which leaves us with two very tough questions. First, does society have any business restricting tobacco products purely on grounds of addiction? New regulations in Boston protect "the younger population" by forbidding the sale, at colleges and professional schools, of " any substance containing tobacco leaf , including but not limited to cigarettes, cigars, pipe, tobacco, snuff, chewing tobacco and dipping tobacco." Does that make sense, even when the products are dissolvable pellets increasingly purged of carcinogens? And if addiction per se is evil, what about caffeine?

Second, should we even want to purge the nicotine from tobacco? The aforementioned study (which, according to Helliker, was federally funded and performed by scientists with no financial connections to the tobacco industry) implies, sensibly, that the less nicotine you put in a smokeless product, the less likely it is to "satisfy" nicotine addicts and lure them away from cigarettes. We permit and even encourage the use of nicotine gum and lozenges to wean people from smoking. What exactly is the moral difference between a lozenge and a pellet?

Tobacco is evolving and escaping for two fundamental reasons. One is that it can be engineered into new forms. The other is that the problem targeted by legislation—the weed's tendency to cause cancer—isn't essential to the tobacco business. What's essential to the tobacco business is addiction. Addiction is a nasty business, deliberately enslaving people while pretending that they "choose" the product. But if you're going to target that practice, then you'd better come and take all the coffee and Diet Coke from Slate 's Washington office. We have some "younger" folks here.

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