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When I heard seven tobacco company executives testify before Congress back in 1994 that smoking wasn’t addictive, I thought "These guys are lying through their nicotine-stained teeth."
The issue has resurfaced with Bob Dole’s recent remarks at a Kentucky rally that, "To some people, smoking is addictive; to others, they can take it or leave it."
Having studied the issue since that original congressional hearing, I’ve found it’s a lot more complex than most of us think. In fact, Dole’s characterization seems about as sound as anything you’ll hear on the subject.
No matter, for Dole is a presidential candidate, and so a tempting — apparently irresistible — target.
"The last thing our kids need to hear is a statement from a man who would be president that smoking is not addictive," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. "Senator Dole, side with our kids, not with the tobacco industry."
Rep. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Dole’s comments show that Joe Camel — the cartoon advertisement figure — is in the lead to be his running mate. Mother Jones magazine actually took a full-page advertisement out in the New York Times declaring that Joe Camel would be Dole’s choice for Surgeon General.
Referring to the fact that tobacco companies have been among Dole’s biggest campaign contributors, Clinton campaign spokesman Joe Lockhart said "Bob Dole should spend more time looking at the scientific evidence and less time counting his campaign contributions."
But you needn’t be a recipient of tobacco money to think that this addiction thing is a lot smokier than it might seem. True, a lot of people have had a hard time quitting cigarettes, but there are about as many who have managed to quit as are still smoking. According to the surgeon general, the vast majority of them gave up the habit without formal treatment.
We live in a country in which a third of us are obese. Virtually all of them will tell you they’ve tried restricting their food intake but just can’t keep it up. Does that make food addictive?
One definition of addiction says that the substance in question must have some sort of intoxicating effect, and cigarettes do — albeit very slight compared to such drugs as cocaine and heroin. But researchers have found the same thing about chocolate, that it raises levels of certain chemicals in the brain and makes you feel better.
Many of us joke about being "chocoholics" but to some who binge on thousands of calories of chocolate a day it’s no laughing matter. Indeed, a drug has now been found to block chocolate cravings.
But there is no scientific definition of addiction. Neither the Diagnostic and Statistical manual of the American Psychiatric Association nor the World Organization use the term addiction. This allows anybody who wants to use any definition they wish.
Thus, the famous 1964 U.S. Surgeon General’s report on smoking concluded that smoking was not addictive, though the Surgeon General’s office now says it is - a move some say is motivated by politics and not science.
Ultimately it comes down to how a New York Times headline put it in 1994: "Is Nicotine Addictive? It Depends on Whose Criteria You Use."
But Bob Dole cleverly sidestepped the issue of whether smoking is addictive in general and observed that different substances have different effects on different people. You really can’t argue with that — as much as his opportunistic opponents have tried.
As it is, however, the issue of addiction is a red herring. Dole was also right when he said, "But I think the more serious question is whether or not the FDA has jurisdiction" over cigarettes.
The FDA is using the addiction issue as an excuse to gain the power to regulate tobacco. But it routinely regulates drugs that are non-addictive — antibiotics, for instance — while forsaking regulation of substances that are.
By the same criteria the FDA is applying to tobacco, "beverages containing alcohol or caffeine are addictive, but they’re not regulated as drugs," notes Reason magazine senior editor Jacob Sullum, author of an upcoming book on the anti-smoking movement.
"Addictiveness is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for FDA jurisdiction," he says. Rather, it’s just a smokescreen for Commissioner David Kessler to justify the sudden reversal of its longstanding position that cigarettes are not covered by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. "They pretend this is a new development," Sullum told me, "but people have been talking about the addictive potential of tobacco for hundreds of years."
Only in one respect was Dole truly wrong. He also told the Kentucky crowd, "In effect, if they should claim jurisdiction and find that cigarettes are a drug, then in effect, you’re banning cigarettes and production of tobacco, so it’s going to affect a lot of people."
Possibly, but probably not. Kessler and Waxman did initially say that if the FDA decided to regulate tobacco as a drug, a ban might be its only option. But now the FDA is instead pushing a series of measures ostensibly intended to reduce underage smoking, including restrictions on advertising, promotion, and sales.
Personally, I like some of what they propose. Society has traditionally given children less leeway to do stupid things than it has adults. But Dole’s right in that cigarette regulation is best left to the states — and individuals and their parents.
Federal Big Brother should — pun intended — butt out.