How the Mad Scientists Dispense Addiction

March 04, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- Maybe there were times when I engaged in a bit of hyperbole. In my zeal to call the tobacco industry to account, I referred to their minions as drug pushers on a par with some Colombian cartel.

Not that there wasn't reason behind this fine figure of speech. By the 1980s, it was clear that cigarette smoking wasn't just a nasty and lethal habit. It was an addiction. And nicotine was the hook.

Then there was the report that emerged from Philip Morris' own internal files in which their senior scientist had described the cigarette as the ''package'' and nicotine as the real ''product.'' ''Think of the cigarette,'' he wrote chirpily, ''as a dispenser for a dose unit of nicotine.''

But even I believed that the nicotine came along for the ride with the tobacco, the way that caffeine comes with the coffee bean. It was just there, the addictive substance in the traditional American tobacco leaf. The trouble in the peace pipe.

Now it turns out that my hyperbole was a classic understatement.

A bad stretch for the tobacco industry -- a time during which the surgeon general urged a ban on advertising to kids and McDonald's banned smoking in its restaurants -- climaxed Monday night with a devastating investigation on ABC's ''Day One.'' The report showed for the first time in detail that the tobacco industry spikes cigarettes with nicotine.

In the process of making cigarettes, manufacturers can and do extract, manipulate and then actually reapply nicotine so that each cigarette carries the same dose. They can and some do even add extra nicotine from suppliers to ratchet the level up.

In short, nicotine isn't just a natural part of the tobacco in cigarettes. It's also an additive that manufacturers deliberately tinker with to deliver the smoker's fix.

This is drug pushing that goes beyond the imaginings of longstanding opponents such as C. Everett Koop, who calls the manipulated cigarette ''a nicotine dispenser.'' Even Richard Daynard of the Tobacco Products Liability Project, who has faced slippery industry lawyers in a long series of cases, is shocked.

''We thought they were drug pushing,'' he says. ''But the idea that they would actually sit and carefullycalculate the dose that gives people the right buzz? That seemed too crazy. These are mad scientists fine-tuning the addictions of the American people.''

This uncovering of the mad scientists may be what finally strips away the shield that has protected cigarettes from regulation.

Until now, the FDA has ruled that tobacco products aren't drugs. The agency regulates nicotine in gum and nicotine in patches but not in cigarettes. It uses the rationale that nicotine is an unavoidable part of tobacco. Moreover, the FDA has agreed, cigarettes aren't sold intentionally to have a pharmacological effect on the body.

Now the FDA may be kicking the habit. In advance of the ABC story, FDA head David Kessler wrote a letter to Congress warning that cigarettes may end up being regulated as drugs. Regulation in turn, he said, ''could mean, ultimately, removal from the market of tobacco products containing nicotine at levels that cause or satisfy addiction.''

With that threat, he asked Congress -- an institution that has been hooked on tobacco money itself -- to give the FDA direction.

What happens next? A cigarette ban, with the nightmarish possibility of a black market and a vast new population of illegal nicotine-heads? A rule against the artificial process? A gradual enforced decline in the amount of nicotine in cigarettes? How do we get unhooked?

At the very least, the new information will provide dramatic support for those who want to eliminate cigarette advertising and raise taxes on tobacco. It can only help the campaign against second-hand smoke and the court cases against tobacco companies. But we are just at the beginning of the end.

The tobacco industry has long protected its lucrative turf by proclaiming that cigarettes are an adult choice, sold for smoking pleasure. Now we know that while Marlboro Man and Virginia Slim were out front lighting up, something else was going on in the lab. The mad scientists were concocting exactly the right chemical mixture to get and keep the customers hooked.

Drug pushers. The words sound exactly right.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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