You can’t take a “good” drug down. Markets will always find a good way around the problem

Slate a good story on smoking (and tobacco) that is sure to send the tobacco Nazis crazy.

While LA County is implementing a ban on smoking even in your own apartment and smoking consumption is falling about 3% per year, smokeless tobacco products are making their way in the market.

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.


[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.

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.
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.

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.

So the upshot is that a good drug like nicotine will still be with us for a long time and the only change is how some people who like to use it will be finding products to consume that are less harmful.

This should of course bitterly disappoint people like Harry Clark.

32 thoughts on “You can’t take a “good” drug down. Markets will always find a good way around the problem

  1. Most of the remaining quitters I know, including myself, are doing so primarily to improve our lung capacity for one reason or another. Any idea if smokeless tobacco addresses this?

  2. Yea, smokeless tobacco means that the delivery of nicotine isn’t done by breathing it down.

    In the cases mentioned it’s lozenges etc. Sounds good to me.

  3. I thought nicontine itself was also a carcinogen.

    If you want it in smokeless form I believe you can buy it in patches. In fact I believe certain government funded agencies actually promote this form of consumption.

  4. No, at least my Doc says that nicotine is pretty harmless in of itself and is actually an excellent stimulant.

    Yes the lozenges etc. like Nicobate have been around but they have far less nicotine than a regular cig, so I’m guessing the stuff these other firms are promoting offer that extra kick.

  5. Terge

    Coffee is a stimulant too.

    Your wiki link is another version of the precautionary principle.

    ” possible links to” means little.

  6. terje

    Your link says nicotine is a stimulant. that’s quite correct it is a stimulant.

    I’m sure that any stimulant would have the same issues as nicotine.

  7. JC – I don’t know if Wikipedia is right or wrong. I only included the link because I think Wikipedia is usually a good starting point. It seems to agree with you that nicotine is not directly linked to cancer which was contrary to my understanding. However the other associated effects don’t look too great. The point about nicotine being a stimulant isn’t part of the toxicology section that I linked to.

    Are you arguing that prohibition is good for innovation? Because that is essentially the argument that greens advance in relation to carbon and energy. They think we will simply innovate around any carbon prohibition and come up with alternate energy forms. I think they are probably right over the long term but I’m not so keen on the transition costs.

  8. Are you arguing that prohibition is good for innovation?

    Quite the opposite. I’m saying that markets are terrific at innovating against obstacles. Smoking is actually very bad for you and I would tend to think people giving up are doing so because of the dangers associated with smoking although most like the effects of nicotine. So providing an alternative delivery system would help those that like the effects of nicotine but not inhaling carcinogenic smoke.

    They think we will simply innovate around any carbon prohibition and come up with alternate energy forms.

    Hardly, most greens are anti-science and want to “innovate” us right back to the stone age. they are anti-development, anti-human and 95% are mentally impaired.

  9. However the other associated effects don’t look too great.

    Terje, you should also look up Paracelsus. He is credited with being the first to point out that, “All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous”, subsequently popularised as “the dose makes the poison”.

    It applies to nicotine too.

  10. Give me a break JC I have been a strong supporter of ‘smokers’ substituting smokeless tobaccos for cigarettes. While smokeless tobacco isn’t harmless various authorities have estimated the health risks from using it to be 0.001X those of smoking cigarettes. That is not quite negligible given the huge risks of smoking cigarettes but it is a vast improvement.

    TerjeP there is no evidence that nicotine is a carcinogen. It is the (main) addictive element in cigarettes. There is evidence it affects brain development in youth so that even smokeless tobaccos should not be consumed by the young. But dumb-assed women who wish to continue consuming nicotine during pregnancy are again better off doing so with smokeless tobacco – they will inflict damage on the foetus but less damage on themselves.

    Nicotine lozenges and so on are better still mokeless tobaccos but are often less satisying than smokeless tobaccos because the latter lack addicting agents in tobacco oyther than nicotine (MAO inhibitors).

    At present it is illegal to sell (but not to consume) smokeless tobacco in Australia. You can import the stuff for your own consumption but pay an exorbitant duty. This does not make sense if the tax is designed to limit social damages. Again I have strongly supported tax reform.

    You are right JC in supposing that I despise the tobacco companies who killed over 100 million people during the twentieth century. They lied about what they knew of the health consequences of smoking for 50 years and caused huge suffering. Indeed they only came clean when whistleblowers did their thing and the courts forced these firms to hand over documents.

    BTW I think the restrictions on smoking have driven the development of smokeless tobaccos. The tobacco companies have nowhere to go other than to provide products that addict people to nicotine. It is better by a mile if people are not addicted but if you do want to waste your money with a dirty habit consume smokeless tobacco not cigarettes.

  11. There is no evidence that nicotine causes cancer. 🙂

    Tell us more about smokeless tabacco. Do you still light the thing? Are third parties uneffected by them? Why is it illegal to sell such a product substitute and isn’t it a bit immoral to effectively ban something that allows people to reduce self harm?

  12. No you don’t smoke it – hence no tars and carcinogens. Its a little satchel (something like a teabag) filled with tobacco which you place between your cheek and teeth and just leave. The nicotine is absorbed by the tissues in your mouth.

    No third party effects – maybe litter?

    Agree absolutely with your last statement. It is counterproductive also. The catch is the hatred most feel towards big tobacco. It really is a disgusting industry that has behaved appallingly. No-one wants to see it survive – me included.

    Also some fear a rat in the tobacco company moves – they have long been able to twist and turn to escape the effects of regulation. One catch is that vthey seem to be marketing the products to kids – cheery-flavoured varieties etc – kids are adversely affected.

    But maybe we should get over the hatreds and try to rid society of cigarettes by encouraging smokeless tobaccos. Almost 1 person in 2 who smokes will die because of their habit. There are huge gains in reducing this by 1/1000th.

  13. You are right JC in supposing that I despise the tobacco companies who killed over 100 million people during the twentieth century. They lied about what they knew of the health consequences of smoking for 50 years and caused huge suffering. Indeed they only came clean when whistleblowers did their thing and the courts forced these firms to hand over documents.

    You poor sorry sap hc. You seriously believe if the tobacco companies hadn’t “lied”, 100 million people wouldn’t have died? And that when the documents came to light, people stopped dying.

    Man, you are smoking something far worse than tobacco.

  14. David, All people die but I was careful to state that the deaths here were attributable to smoking. Not that they wouldn’t ever die. Of course they lose QALYs.

    I certainly didn’t say the deaths would stop when the documents were discovered. But smoking rates have continued to fall strongly in almost all countries. There will be improved mortality and a gain in QALYs as a result.

    BTW why the word ‘sap’? It was a civilised conversation until you dropped that word. You are the ‘sap’.

  15. A sap is a person who believes fairy stories.

    Anyone who thinks smokers act involuntarily is a sap. Anyone who thinks they were transformed from involuntary victim to rational non-smoker because of what cigarette companies secretly knew about tobacco is a double sap.

    Smokers are risk takers, like BASE jumpers and motorcyclists. The price of cigarettes has been by far the biggest influence on consumption. Add increased health consciousness (which also contributed to declining salt in the diet, without blaming salt manufacturers) and you don’t need sap explanations. Blaming cigarette companies is like blaming parachute manufacturers for sky diving deaths.

  16. Yea:

    That’s true David. Smokers are basically risk takers. The idea that the little darlings, coughing up 1/2 their lungs each night to clean them out were taken in by the big bad cig companies is ridiculous. In fact it’s laughable.

    As a smoker I knew exactly what the risk was and was playing Russian roulette and jus the same with sky divers etc.

  17. If tobacco companies have engaged in fraud, then they can be charged with fraud.

    But to the degree that they sell a product to a willing buyer, then (1) the buyer is getting a benefit; and (2) the buyer is responsible for their own actions.

    I know that hc disagrees with some choices that other people make. I also disagree with some choices that other people make.

    But because I respect freedom (including the freedom to make mistakes) and because I have a healthy skepticism about my own limited knowledge… I do not think that I (nor hc) should enforce our views on other people.

  18. Mark, The smoking literature assumes that smokers are risk takers. In fact to assess the effects of smoking on health, researchers compare the life expectancy of smokers with that of people who have the same risk attitudes as smokers but who don’t smoke (so called ‘non-smoking smokers’). This reduces the measured heath costs of smoking because smokers tend to be stupid people who would have killed themselves through their stupidity anyway.

    David, A sap is a fool so you are accusing me of being a fool. Stuff you.

    BTW who denies that price is an important influence on demand – price elasticities are high? You are saying nothing new. Its the basis for introducing high taxews on fags.

    Cigarette companies until the year 2000 denied the link between smoking and cancer and denied that smoking was addictive. They knew that these claims were false from at least the late 1960s. At the end of the 1960s they dealt with the US Surgeon General’s Report by introducing ‘fitered cigarettes’ even though their own research showed that because of compensatory behaviour smokers would if anything absorb more carcinogens from their product. They produced thin “female” cigarettes such as “Virginia Slims” which at the time of their introduction they knew carried a higher than average carcinogen load. They also knew that women were more readily addicted than men and that women found it harder to quit – ideal customers. Are you seriously saying that the companies have no responsibility for the millions who die annually from tobacco-related diseases? They lied about a product for nearly 50 years. This product when consumed as they suggested killed those who consumed it. They knew it killed people but developed specific campaigns to addict youngsters and women to their products.

    They also adopted campaigns based on “personal free choice” – enthusiastically endorsed by Libertarians and those on the right of politics – to encourage people to continue their daily habit. The Malboro Man – he wasn’t frightened by health warnings etc – brave, heroic, individualistic – yes but he (in real life) too died of lung cancer.

    John, The cigarette companies have been effectively charged with fraud.. They have been charged in the US courts with racketeering – selling a product for decades on the basis of claims they knew were false.

    I am not entering into the banter about individual rights which is so pointless. I am stating facts about tobacco as cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

    Not a single factual claim I have made has been refuted by any response here. Don’t try to confuse the uissue by saying I operate with different values. That is so but that does not bear on the issues here.

  19. Thanks TejeP, You can delete 23 -30 which were attempts to not use html or change formatting. You can see how persistent I was.

  20. harry,

    A couple of things.

    The clinton settlement deal was a load of crap. Rather than punishing the cig companies for lying- lying about a legal product I might add that they were allowed to sell- it became a huge tax crab that suited the cig companies, the state governments and butt fucked the consumer that happened to be the working class Americans as they are the predominant smokers. It also created a sort of legalized monopoly that was and is being used as the tax tit to be sucked on by the state governments in a huge way.

    So please don’t use the example the cig companies lied when you really don’t know that much of the legal entanglements that occurred over the years.

    Here’s a good explanation of the lard fight that went on.

    You want to tax it even more, harry, isn’t that right?

    Well rifle through Reason mag and you’ll quickly understand who is being addicted to the tobacco money. It just isn’t the users , it’s also the governments as tobacco money has become a material revenue earner for them. Call that conflict of interest or what?

    harry, the fact is that no ones here is actually advocating for smoking as it’s a horrible habit, however the results of curbing cause even more damage than just leaving people alone.

    the smoking ban…

    I could be that the smoking ban has actually made health risks worse. Have you seen people standing outside buildings and sucking down every single bit of the cigarette. they smoke harder, harry and that makes it worse.

  21. I was talking about the judgement by <a href =””<US District Court Gladys Kessler. Quote:

    “[This case] is about an industry, and in particular these Defendants, that survives, and profits, from
    selling a highly addictive product which causes diseases that lead to a staggering number of deaths per
    year, an immeasurable amount of human suffering and economic loss, and a profound burden on our
    national health care system. Defendants have known many of these facts for at least 50 years or more.

    Despite that knowledge, they have consistently, repeatedly and with enormous skill and sophistication,
    denied these facts to the public, the Government, and to the public health community.”

    • “Defendants have marketed and sold their lethal products with zeal, with deception, with a singleminded
    focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that
    success exacted.”

    • “Over the course of more than 50 years, Defendants lied, misrepresented and deceived the American
    public, including smokers and the young people they avidly sought as ‘replacement’ smokers about the
    devastating health effects of smoking and environmental tobacco smoke.”

    • “The evidence in this case clearly establishes that Defendants have not ceased engaging in unlawful
    activity…. For example, most Defendants continue to fraudulently deny the adverse health effects of
    secondhand smoke which they recognized internally; all Defendants continue to market “low tar”
    cigarettes to consumers seeking to reduce their health risks or quit; all Defendants continue to
    fraudulently deny that they manipulate the nicotine delivery of their cigarettes in order to create and
    sustain addiction; some Defendants continue to deny that they market to youth in publications with
    significant youth readership and with imagery that targets youth; and some Defendants continue to
    suppress and conceal information which might undermine their public or litigation position…. Their
    continuing conduct misleads consumers in order to maximize Defendants’ revenues by recruiting new
    smokers (the majority of whom are under the age of 18), preventing current smokers from quitting, and
    thereby sustaining the industry.”

    I am a defender of capitalism my friend but not of these assholes.

  22. Harry:

    the tobacco settlement was a farce. The only things it did was

    1. add more tobacco money in state hands thereby making them addicted to tobacco money.

    2. Create a cartel that prevented new entrants in the market stifling competition and the possibility of actually seeing a safe method of nicotine delivery

    3. further impoverishing working class Americans by raising the price.

    the curbs on advertising etc were a farce.

    In other words even if the cig companies lied… lied about a legal product I may add… it has done nothing to stop smokers getting their cigs. The only thing it’s done is impose a regressive tax on the people least able to afford it.

    This is why libertarians never support bans on self harm. The moment the government tries to control substance abuse it fucks things even further.

    I would guess that most libertarians hate smoking or at least see the dangers, however control makes things even worse.

  23. The Kessler judgement came after the settlement. Its not what i am quoting above. The settlement was a farce where the tobacco companies conned the government and the governments conned the people. I agree it is a farce – beautifully analysed in Kip Viscusi’s Smoke Filled Rooms .

    For a few cents per pack over 25 years they got a range of prosecution immunities and they guessed that sales tax increases of that magnitude were about to occur anyway. The settlement was hundreds of billions of dollars but per pack it is one tenth of sweet FA. The states did treat it as a revenue device – we know smokers pay more than their share of medical bills because they die earlier and don’t get sick for much longer before they do so – morbidity does not increase. Smoking is a path toward a quick departure.

    Forget about those racist arab jokes. Shake hands with big tobacco and you are likely to end up with a cancerous nodule in your lungs. These guys beat the regulators for 50 years. I would never suggest these criminals are not smart!

    e.g. The curbs on advertising (much of which is defensive and mutually destructive) were supported by big tobacco. It is a textbook Prisoners Dilemma.

    e.g. The “cigarette warnings’ were supported by big tobacco. They gave the firms an out on product liability cases and they knew from their research that the warnings have only a transitional deterrent effect.

    There are a million other stories which you can read in the numerous histories of the industry.

    On the regressive tax bit I am surprised you advance this silly line. Many efficiency generating taxes that internalise externalities are regressive. But you don’t dismiss such taxes on that account. Its the overall incidence of the tax/transfer system that matters.

    With respect to fags the poor are more likely to quit than the rich anyway given a hefty tax. Even apart from other transfers are they not rewarded with a lower incidence of cancer and emphysema?

  24. Look at it this way harry. Let’s say people were able to hit them with law suits. What do you think the end result would have been?

    At the first sign of trouble they would have run to the courts for bankruptcy protection then start afresh with a new bunch of capital and a big huge disclaimer on the pack saying that ” smoking is dangerous to your health”.

    In other words it would have been the same old firms with a new bunch of protected capital as a result of disclaimers. it wasn’t as though the government was going to shut them down as they were earning too much. And don’t forget it is a legal product.

    On the regressive tax bit I am surprised you advance this silly line.

    Well seeing it was a tax crab and the poor were the ones most effected by it as they are the larger share of smokers by far, yea it was monstrously regressive for the reason I outlined above.

    Harry, the thing I say, which i think you understand is that heavy duty smokers would put their smokes ahead of food for the family. they would rather see their kids go without a meal than missing a cig. there is price elasticity for sure but not where the tax fell as they knew exactly what they were doing.

    I have a friend who was one of the lead partners in a firm representing tobacco and the things I heard were pretty amazing even from the government side of things. They didn’t give a shit about the health of the smoker.

    One other thing, from what I’ve read smokers actually don’t put a great deal of pressure on the heath system. They go early and the go with an illness for which little can be done. Lung cancer is actually not that expensive as an illnesses. It’s basically incurable so you get a few CAT scans to show progress, maybe some chemo and a few years later you’re gone. assuming we all go, the least expensive illnesses seem on the system seem to be the ones smokers get as they’re mostly incurable.

    But sure, cig companies are pricks and I’m sure they lied, however they were also dealing in a legal product. I agree though there is nothing to like about these firms and there’s no reason why a libertarian should like them.

    Having said that I do defend their right to exist for the reasons that if it was made illegal the end result would be worse.

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