Ending Cigarette Addiction
One of the great success stories of public health in recent years has been the plummeting numbers of smokers in society. In the 1960s almost half of the adult population smoked. Today, it’s a bit more than 10%.
There have been a number of strategies that have led to such a great outcome. Education certainly played a role. As people learned more about how dangerous tobacco products are, they were more inclined to quit. Tobacco taxes also helped motivate people to smoke less, as the habit became quite expensive over the years. Over the last two decades it also became increasingly difficult to find places where smoking was permitted, as restaurants and bars banned indoor smoking as well as smoking on patios, and smoking rooms in offices disappeared. Cigarette companies were also banned from advertising or sponsoring events, reducing their profiles and chances to promote smoking generally.
As smoking became ever more inconvenient, more people gave it up. The introduction of vaping gave smokers a less harmful alternative to get the nicotine they craved. Unfortunately, it became more questionable how beneficial vaping was for society as a whole as vaping companies pivoted to promoting their products to teenagers and began to addict a new generation to nicotine.
However, despite the effectiveness of all of these approaches, a powerful tool has never been used in Canada - reducing nicotine. On the contrary, over the last 60 years, the amount of nicotine in cigarettes has increased substantially. It’s risen by over 10% in a single decade. This is hardly a coincidence. Tobacco companies realize what keeps smokers coming back for more. Instead of allowing tobacco companies to raise nicotine concentrations, our governments should have been mandating them to reduce it, at the very least getting it back to the levels of the 1960s, before people realized how dangerous cigarettes are and began to want to quit.
In the U.S., the government is finally heading down this route. It will likely take years to implement as the tobacco companies use all of the legal tools at their disposal to stall these important new regulations, but at least we’re seeing progress. It’s certainly not a done deal, as the Obama administration had also attempted this, before the new regulations were scrapped during the Trump presidency. New Zealand is also taking a similar approach. Canada can certainly follow suit, and legislation has already been passed limiting the concentration of nicotine in vaping products.
Tobacco companies argue that such an approach would actually encourage people to smoke more in order to get the nicotine they crave, as well as driving people to the black market for cigarettes. Yet the counter argument is fairly simple: Lower nicotine concentrations slowly over time. It would be difficult for smokers to notice reductions of 5% or even 10% per year, but over a decade the cumulative effect would substantially lower the difficulty for smokers to quit. Since nicotine doesn’t give much of a high, moving to a nicotine free world is much easier than eliminating other drugs. The only thing stopping us is inertia.