Addiction by design


Published: Wednesday, January 31, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 30, 2007 at 11:55 p.m.

For years the tobacco industry has been accused of deliberately increasing nicotine levels in its products in order to, literally, addict its customers. And for years, tobacco company executives have indignantly denied such charges.

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Last year, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health said it determined that nicotine levels in cigarettes increased by 10 percent between 1998 and 2004. Preposterous, the industry responded.

Now comes the Harvard School of Public Health with a study of its own that pretty much confirms what Massachusetts found. Harvard researchers say they determined that nicotine levels in cigarettes increased an average of 1.6 percent a year between 1998 to 2005, for a cumulative 11 percent hike. "We know from our data that there are intentional design changes that result in more nicotine in smoke that increases the capacity for the cigarette to cause and maintain addiction," Dr. Gregory Connolly, leader of the Harvard study, told the New York Times recently.

The response from Big Tobacco: Preposterous.

So what does it matter if companies are intentionally increasing nicotine content in their products? For one thing, states like Florida have been spending millions of dollars a year (most of it from tobacco litigation settlement funds) to try to convince people, especially young people, to quit smoking. That's because the public health care tab for treating smoking-related diseases runs into the billions of dollars each year.

If the response from Big Tobacco is to simply front-load cigarettes with ever higher levels of an addictive substance, then getting smokers to quit becomes an even more difficult job.

Because tobacco is, essentially, an addictive drug, anti-smoking advocates have long argued that it should be regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Presumably, FDA regulations could require companies to more precisely identify nicotine levels in their products and forbid them from steadily increasing nicotine content for the express purpose of addicting even more customers.

The Senate passed such a bill in 2004, but it failed in the House. Perhaps now that Congress is under new leadership the results of the Harvard study will provide fresh impetus for FDA regulation of what is, after all, a deadly substance.

"Given the harm that tobacco causes, it shouldn't be a game of cat-and-mouse to figure out what the industry is doing to cigarettes," U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said recently. He's right. It's time to stop playing cat-and-mouse with Big Tobacco and treat it like the drug industry it is.

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