Tobacco Without Nicotine

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 30 2009 9:58 AM

Tobacco Without Nicotine

For the last two days, we've been talking about how to take the smoking out of nicotine . How about taking the nicotine out of smoking? Can it be done?

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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.

Actually, scientists are already beginning to do it. The latest report, by Kazufumi Yazaki and colleagues, appears in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . They identify a gene, Nt-JAT1, that controls nicotine distribution in tobacco plants. "We will proceed now with experiments to raise tobacco plants that have no nicotine in their leaves," Yazaki tells the Daily Telegraph .

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Great. But wait a minute. What exactly will this accomplish?

"There are a lot of people who want to quit and have tried to stop, but say they miss the sensation of having a cigarette in their mouth," Yazaki argues. Tobacco modified to block or eliminate the key transporter gene could produce nicotine-free cigarettes. These would give you the smoke you crave without further addicting you to nicotine. Yazaki thinks this will help people quit.

Really? Low-tar, low-nicotine cigarettes have been around for a long time. Smokers are now suing tobacco companies for marketing these cigarettes as relatively safe. The suit says that to get the same nicotine fix from low-nicotine cigarettes, smokers "unconsciously engage in compensatory behaviors " such as smoking more sticks, inhaling more deeply, or delaying exhalation. So nicotine reduction doesn't end up reducing the damage. And remember, these cigarettes are low-nicotine and low-tar. A low-nicotine, regular-tar cigarette would, on this theory, cause even greater damage, since you'd have to inhale more carcinogens to get the same fix.

On the other hand, there's some evidence that smokers wouldn't compensate this way. And, as we discussed yesterday, nicotine replacement therapy operates on the principle that some addicts can gradually reduce their nicotine consumption till they're off the drug altogether. But nicotine replacement products don't just deliver the drug. They change the delivery system. They get rid of the cigarette.

That's where the nicotine-free tobacco project really breaks down. Yazaki's team thinks "it would also be good for nonsmokers if tobacco smoke did not contain nicotine." Well, maybe. But what really endangers and angers nonsmokers is the smoke, not the nicotine. If you just block the nicotine gene in tobacco plants, you aren't touching the delivery system or the carcinogens. Smokers are still smoking, the rest of us are still inhaling the smoke, and we're still getting sick. It's great that you're taking away the product's chemical addictiveness. But that's just another reason to ban smoking everywhere, as we're already doing . Smokers won't need it, and the rest of us can't stand it.

In short, nicotine-free cigarettes don't make sense as a business plan. Yazaki says that his research grant is about to run out and that he's thinking of asking Japan Tobacco to sponsor him. Good luck with that. Addiction is what makes tobacco such a profitable business. Eliminate the nicotine, and the pusher loses his grip on the "consumer." That's why tobacco companies are trying to do exactly the opposite: keep the nicotine while eliminating the cigarette .

Nicotine-free tobacco may end up doing the world a lot of good. But if so, that good won't come from cigarette production. It'll come from the use of tobacco plants to make medical products such as insulin and vaccines . Take out the nicotine, take out the carcinogens, and tobacco is a different animal—or, rather, a different plant—altogether. Put that in your pipe. And don't smoke it.

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