Tuesday, October 11, 2011

International Sports Monitoring Agency: Nicotine, Smokeless Tobacco May Enhance Performance

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), an international agency composed and funded by sport organizations and governments, on September 27 announced it will “monitor the effects nicotine can have on performance when taken in oral tobacco products such as snus,” starting in 2012 (here). This followed publication of a report from the agency’s laboratory on over 2,000 urine samples from athletes in 43 sports. The report, by Fran├žois Marclay and colleagues at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, is abstracted here.

The research measured exposure to and active use of nicotine by athletes. While the prevalence of active use was only 15%, the authors noted high prevalence in some sports, included in this table:

Active Nicotine Consumption Among Athletes
Sport (No. of samples)Active Consumers (%)
American football (19) 56
Basketball (24) 25
Biathlon (38) 18
Bobsleigh (38) 31
Football (soccer) (205) 19
Gymnastics (48) 29
Ice hockey (108) 32
Rugby (25) 28
Skating (41) 20
Skiing (143) 26
Volleyball (46) 20
Wrestling (31) 32

Marclay wrote that these results provide “alarming evidence” about nicotine consumption among athletes. But the report had no information about the athletes who were tested, and the number of samples was minuscule. For example, Marclay’s claim that 56% of American football players actively used nicotine was based on only 19 samples. There are over a million football players at the high school level in the U.S., thousands at the college level, and hundreds in the NFL, and there are 18 other countries with American football leagues. The most alarming aspect of this report is that it made sweeping claims based on very little evidence.

Marclay wrote that “…smokeless tobacco is a very attractive drug from a doping perspective, considering the performance enhancement pharmacological properties of nicotine and the absence of direct adverse effects on the respiratory tract.” Nicotine “exhibits a variety of pharmacological properties sought-after by consumers,” and it “results in vigilance and cognitive function enhancement together with relaxation, reduced stress, mood modulation and lower body weight.”

These effects are well known among tobacco users, but Marclay cited no authority for the claim that these properties enhance performance to an extent that justifies prohibition in sports. In fact, Marclay acknowledged that “the frontier between recreational consumption and use for doping purpose is difficult to ascertain with social drugs, including nicotine, caffeine or tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)[marijuana].” Would Marclay and WADA ban caffeine along with nicotine?

In trying to tie smokeless tobacco to performance enhancement, Marclay offered a startling non-sequitur: “Since smoking may be responsible for noticeable respiratory effects and numerous health threats detrimental to sport practice at top level, likelihood of smokeless tobacco consumption for performance enhancement is a hypothesis of very serious concern.” Simply put: Smoking is very bad, so smokeless tobacco must be a performance enhancer. The association of these two very different products in this manner defies logic.

Marclay was especially concerned about athletes involved in winter sports. Citing his own work (abstract here), he wrote that “a recent study on the 2009 Ice Hockey World Championships brought alarming findings as active nicotine consumption before or/and during the games was highlighted for about half of the athletes.”

If WADA rules eventually that smokeless tobacco and nicotine enhance athletic performance, it will refute tobacco prohibitionists’ persistent claim that tobacco provides no tangible benefits to consumers. As I have written (here), “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… 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.”


Anonymous said...

Caffeine, or at least high doses of it, was banned for a short period. The ban was lifted several years ago. See
The suggestion that nicotine should be placed on the banned list is of great interest to professional golfers. The British Open champion, Darren Clarke is a well known smoker, as are many other top golfers. Golf could have avoided this by not seeking to become an Olympic sport.
Jonathan Bagley

Anonymous said...

The quote below together with the tone of the first of Marclay's papers to which you refer gives me the impression he is an anti smoking fanatic who has found a different angle of attack.

"Indeed, inclusion of nicotine to the Prohibited List or/and Monitoring Program may not only prevent consumption of this molecule as a performance enhancer but also significantly limit initiation and development of drug addiction during sport practice and pursuit after a professional career."

Jonathan Bagley.