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We Already Knew the Smoking Secret

By Brad Rodu

Reprinted With Permission from the Washington Times (December 29, 1995)

To the casual observer of the tobacco industry pseudotrial being conducted in many of the nation's newspapers and television networks, one verdict has been delivered: in the 1960's and 1970's the cigarette manufacturers conducted years of research on the addictive nature of nicotine and its manipulation, followed by a ruthless suppression of these results.

Research presentations were cancelled, laboratories shut down, and careers destroyed, all to protect "The Secret" that the cigarette smoker, once hooked, is destined to puff forever. Last week the Wall Street Journal released the latest discovery: an internal Philip Morris memorandum comparing the addictive qualities of nicotine with cocaine.

The nation is outraged. Smokers and nonsmokers alike cannot believe that this evidence could have been hidden from them for all these years. Antitobacco crusaders cite "The Secret" as the justification for strong FDA regulation of the tobacco industry. With 46 million potential clients, the class action legal vultures are circling in several state and federal liability trials. But before they sweep in for the kill, the secret and its significance should be reviewed in a commonsense court of appeals.

First of all, nicotine wasn't discovered by twentieth century tobacco-industry scientists. Its existence was known by 1571, less than 80 years after Columbus discovered tobacco along with the New World. Nicotine was purified in 1828, and its chemical formula was determined in 1843. The effects of nicotine on the brain were first described over one hundred years ago in the medical literature by British scientists.

The addictiveness of tobacco isn't exactly a recent revelation either. By the 1930's many authorities had already accepted tobacco use as habitual or addictive. For example, in 1936 it was described as "...a form of drug addiction, even though a pleasant one, not affecting criminal statistics..."

In 1942, British researcher L.M. Johnston successfully substituted nicotine injections for smoking. The publication of this historic experiment wasn't suppressed by Philip Morris; it was reported in The Lancet, an internationally renowned British medical journal. Johnston further discussed many of nicotine's effects that form the core features of addiction: tolerance, craving, and withdrawal symptoms. His conclusions: "Clearly the essence of tobacco smoking is the tobacco and not the smoking. Satisfaction can be obtained from chewing it, from snuff taking, and from the administration of nicotine."

By the 1950's the addictive nature of tobacco use was not just a subject discussed in obscure medical journals. Books with titles such as The Habit of Tobacco Smoking (W. Koskowski, Staples Press Ltd., 1955) and The Cigarette Habit: A Scientific Cure (A. King, Doubleday and Co. Inc., 1959) reached far larger general audiences.

In the past year thousands of documents have been released by universities, newspapers and congressmen. Antitobacco crusaders have followed each release with hysterical allegations of tobacco industry sins, but the documents simply acknowledge what Johnston reported in 1942: that nicotine affects the body, brain and behavior of smokers.

Tobacco companies have been accused of not sharing this research with customers or regulators, but it was hardly a secret. Philip Morris reports publishing 250 research articles during the 1960's and '70's. And the industry effort was miniscule compared to the volume of research from independent labs all over the world, which is available to virtually anyone with access to a computer or library.

According to Medline, the National Library of Medicine's computerized data base, nicotine was a focus of one thousand studies from 1966 to 1976, when tobacco industry research was supposedly at a maximum according to critics. Nicotine was a focus in 1,500 medical research articles in the 1976-84 period, and during the last decade alone almost 4,000 studies were published.

Many of these research reports offered scientific proof for what smokers have been saying for nearly a century: smoking is pleasant and enjoyable, the unpleasant side effects of the first few cigarettes diminish with continued smoking, daily smoking patterns are predictable, smoking is often continued in spite of health problems, quitting is decidedly unpleasant, and even the person who successfully quits smoking continues to crave tobacco for a long, long time.

Many of these studies show that manipulation of nicotine by manufacturers is largely irrelevant when compared with the subsequent extensive manipulation of tobacco by smokers themselves. High nicotine tobacco is puffed less often and less aggressively than tobacco with a lower content or an efficient filter.

High nicotine cigarettes reduce exposure to the harmful by-products of burning tobacco. Brown and Williamson recognized this when they attempted to develop the high-nicotine strain of tobacco called Y-1. For these efforts the company was trashed by U.S. Congressman Henry Waxman's Subcommittee last year; ironically the company was aided in the early stages of the research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In contrast, smokers of light and ultralight cigarettes may actually absorb more toxins as they puff more often and more vigorously for the desired nicotine dose. The bottom line: once addicted, smokers are remarkably efficient in absorbing the amount of nicotine they need.

The national debate about tobacco use has become so polarized that both sides have lost touch with reality. Nearly a century of scientific study makes preposterous the continued denial of tobacco and nicotine addiction by cigarette manufacturers. On the other hand, the sheer magnitude of medical evidence also renders equally absurd the notion that what tobacco industry researchers "discovered" and "suppressed" twenty or thirty years ago is of any significance.