Wednesday, May 5, 2010
The Proven Positive Effects of Nicotine and Tobacco
In 1994, Jacob Sullum told the following story at a Cato Institute seminar on tobacco use:
“A few years ago when I was working on a story about the antismoking movement for Reason magazine, I interviewed Scott Ballin, chairman of the Coalition on Smoking or Health. I raised the question of why people smoke. ‘There is no positive aspect to it,’ he assured me. ‘The product has no potential benefits.’ Not everyone concurs with that assessment; in a recent column in Vanity Fair, for example, Christopher Hitchens wrote that ‘cigarettes improve my short-term concentration, aid my digestion, make me a finer writer and a better dinner companion, and in several other ways prolong my life.’”
Disparaging tobacco’s value is a familiar theme with tobacco prohibitionists. They claim that the substance is worthless, and that the beneficial effects reported by smokers are only symptoms of relief from nicotine withdrawal. But smokers believe that they derive specific benefits. Who is telling the truth?
A meta-analysis just published in the journal Psychopharmacology reviewed the effects of nicotine and smoking on aspects of human performance (abstract here). The lead author is Stephen Heishman, a scientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse; he is joined by Bethea Kleykamp of Johns Hopkins University and Edward Singleton of Stevenson University. The study will not please anti-tobacco extremists.
Heishman et al. reviewed 15 years of published studies on the effects of nicotine and smoking on various measures of human performance. They had strict criteria for the studies they accepted; one of the most important was including only nonsmokers or smokers who had not been deprived, in order to eliminate the confounding effects of withdrawal on performance.
Heishman et al. found that nicotine and/or smoking produces positive effects involving fine motor skills, attention and memory. The investigators conclude: “The significant effects of nicotine on motor abilities, attention, and memory likely represent true performance enhancement because they are not confounded by withdrawal relief. The beneficial cognitive effects of nicotine have implications for initiation of smoking and maintenance of tobacco dependence.”
It’s time to be honest with the 50 million Americans, and hundreds of millions around the world, who use tobacco. The benefits they get from tobacco are very real, not imaginary or just the periodic elimination of withdrawal. It’s time to abandon the myth that tobacco is devoid of benefits, and to focus on how we can help smokers continue to derive those benefits with a safer delivery system.