Tag Archives: tobacco

Ice Age humans have been using tobacco since at least 12,300 years ago

The findings were made at the Wishbone site in northwestern Utah. Credit: Daron Duke.

Nicotine is one of the most addictive drugs, and humans may have first noticed this as early as 12,300 years ago. That’s the age of old charred seeds of the wild tobacco plant, which were found within an ancient preserved hearth at the Wishbone site, near the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah. Alongside the charred seeds, archeologists found stone tools and duck bones.

Previously, the oldest evidence of tobacco used dated to 3,300 years ago, based on nicotine residue found inside a pipe from Alabama. The new findings show that hunter-gatherer communities were familiar with tobacco much earlier than thought, even during the last Ice Age.

Chewing wild tobacco around the campfire

Some of the burned wild tobacco seeds that were found by the archaeologists. Credit: Angela Armstrong-Ingram.

Today, there are over 1.3 billion tobacco users worldwide. The addictive habit is responsible for more than eight million deaths every year in the world.

The tobacco plant is native to North and South America and until Cristopher Columbus was given some dry leaves as a gift, people outside the two continents were not exposed to it. It soon proved a hit, though. If it wasn’t for tobacco, the English may have never succeeded in colonizing North America since the riches were far fewer than in South America where the Spaniards rapidly expanded thanks to the economic incentives.

While Native Americans used tobacco in religious ceremonies and for supposed medical purposes, the smoking of tobacco in Europe became a daily habit.

However, what the European colonists were smoking was the domesticated variety. Scientists don’t know when the tobacco plant was first domesticated and used in agriculture, but there is evidence that suggests the process began some 5,000 years ago in the Southern United States and in Mexico. Around this time, archaeologists noticed an uptick in the domestication of food crops at large and an increase in tobacco use artifacts, such as seeds, residues, and pipes stained with nicotine.

The Utah charred seeds discovered by archaeologists led by Daron Duke of the Far Western Anthropological Research Group in Nevada belong to Nicotiana attenuata, also known as coyote tobacco. This particular species of wild tobacco was never domesticated but Indigenous people in the region use it to this day.

“On a global scale, tobacco is the king of intoxicant plants, and now we can directly trace its cultural roots to the ice age,” said Duke.

Although the area where the seeds were found is now desert terrain, during the time that Ice Age hunter-gatherers consumed them, the region was a marshland filled with waterfowl and wetland plants.

Alongside the seeds, archaeologists found sharp stone-cutting tools and spear tips made from obsidian. One of the spear points was stained with remains of blood. Analysis in the lab showed the blood proteins belonged to a mammoth or mastodon.

There are no other hints regarding the culture of these hunter-gatherer groups that experimented with tobacco. But seeing how popular the plant went on to become, it is likely that people “have already been at least casually tending, manipulating and managing tobacco well before the population and food-requirement incentives that drove investments in agriculture,” Duke said.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

Electronic cigarettes aren’t good for you — in some respects, they’re worse than traditional cigarettes

E-cigarettes aren’t harmless. Although viewed as a healthier alternative, the study finds that e-cigarette smoking impacts heart health similar to the smoking of traditional cigarettes.

Image via Pixabay.

Several heart disease risk factors — cholesterol, triglycerides, and glucose levels, as well as decreased blood flow in the heart — are negatively impacted by e-cigarette smoke. The findings will be presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2019, later this month.

Not harmless by far

“There is no long-term safety data on e-cigarettes. However, there are decades of data for the safety of other nicotine replacement therapies,” explains Rose Marie Robertson, M.D., FAHA, the American Heart Association’s deputy chief science and medical officer.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends the use of FDA-approved smoking cessation aids, which are proven safe and effective. Robertson says that people often choose e-cigarettes as an alternative to quitting (as it is perceived as being safer than traditional tobacco), or as a temporary solution while working to quit altogether. In the latter case, however, she warns that people should also plan how to subsequently stop using e-cigarettes. There is a striking lack of data on the long-term safety of such devices, and growing concerns over the physiological effects caused by the chemical cocktails therein.

One study used in this report — the Cardiovascular Injury due to Tobacco Use (CITU) Study — compared cholesterol, triglycerides, and glucose levels in healthy adult nonsmokers, e-cigarette smokers, traditional cigarette smokers, and dual smokers (who use both traditional and e-cigarettes). Participants were aged 21-45, didn’t have any preexisting cardiovascular disease, and took no relevant medication. Out of the total of 467 participants, 94 were non-smokers, 52 were dual smokers, 45 were e-cigarette smokers, and 285 were traditional cigarette smokers.

After adjusting for age, race, and sex, the team reports that total cholesterol was lower for e-cig smokers, but their low-density lipoprotein (LDL, ‘bad’ cholesterol) levels were higher, compared to nonsmokers. High-density lipoprotein (HDL, ‘good’ cholesterol) was lower in dual smokers.

“Although primary care providers and patients may think that the use of e-cigarettes by cigarette smokers makes heart health sense, our study shows e-cigarette use is also related to differences in cholesterol levels. The best option is to use FDA-approved methods to aid in smoking cessation, along with behavioral counseling,” said study author Sana Majid, M.D., a postdoctoral fellow in vascular biology at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Another study looked at heart blood flow as a measure of coronary vascular function in 19 young adult smokers (ages 24-32) immediately before and after smoking either e-cigarettes or traditional cigarettes. The study looked at this metric both at rest and after performing a handgrip exercise (meant to simulate physiological stress).

For smokers of traditional cigarettes, the team saw a “modest” increase in blood flow after cigarette inhalation, which decreased with subsequent stress. E-cig smokers, however, saw blood flow decrease both at rest and after the handgrip exercises. All in all, e-cigarette use seems to be associated with coronary vascular dysfunction to a greater degree than seen in traditional cigarettes.

“These results indicate that e-cig use is associated with persistent coronary vascular dysfunction at rest, even in the absence of physiologic stress,” said study author Florian Rader, medical director of the Human Physiology Laboratory and assistant director of the Non-Invasive Laboratory, Smidt Heart Institute, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles.

“Providers counseling patients on the use of nicotine products will want to consider the possibility that e-cigs may confer as much and potentially even more harm to users and especially patients at risk for vascular disease,” added study co-author Susan Cheng, director of Public Health Research at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The studies were funded by The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the FDA Center for Tobacco Products, and The California State Tobacco-related Disease Research Program High Impact Pilot Research Award. The American Heart Association Tobacco Center for Regulatory Science provided research materials for the first study.

The findings will be presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2019 conference, November 16-18 in Philadelphia, USA (sessions Mo3106, Sa3199).

Credit: Pixabay.

Pleasant odors might help decrease cigarette cravings

Quitting smoking is daunting due to the intense cravings for nicotine. Some people go through multiple cessations only to relapse time and time again. According to new research, inhaling pleasant odors may be enough to temporarily reduce the urge to light a cigarette, suggesting it could be a useful addition to effective smoking cessation strategies.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

In the United States, a much smaller percentage of the population smokes compared to 50 years ago. In absolute numbers, though, there are still about 40 million Americans who smoke. Cigarettes cause more than 480,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. Most adult smokers are not only aware of the risks they’re subjecting themselves to but would also like to quit. At least half of all smokers report having tried to quit in the past year, yet half of those who try relapse within two weeks.

For most smokers, the pressure of nicotine cravings is like a psychological bungee cord that yanks those who try to quit back towards their lighters. Although nicotine is not nearly as intensely rewarding as other drugs such as marijuana or opioids, it’s an extremely addictive substance. Like other drugs, it stimulates the release of dopamine in neurons that connect the nucleus accumbens with the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and other brain regions. Each time a person takes a puff out of a cigarette, the brain reinforces this behavior. The amount of released dopamine isn’t great compared to other drugs, but nicotine makes up for it through repetition — a person who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day typically is exposed to roughly 250 hits of nicotine. Over months or years, that’s a lot of reinforced behavior, which makes it highly difficult afterward to unlearn the mildly rewarding behavior of lighting up a cigarette.

Long story short, nicotine cravings are high-wired in the smoker’s brain and are very difficult to control. But maybe taking a whip of a pleasant aroma might be enough to calm a smoker’s nerves, for a little while at least.

For their study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh recruited 232 smokers, aged 18 to 55, who at the study’s onset were not trying to quit nor were they using any alternative nicotine delivery system, such as vaping or gum. The participants were asked not to smoke for at least eight hours before prior to the experiment and were told to bring a pack of their favorite cigarettes and a lighter with them.

Each participant was asked to smell and rate a number of different odors that are generally considered pleasant (i.e. apple, peppermint, lemon, vanilla, etc) as well as unpleasant ones, tobacco smoke, and a blank (no distinguishable odor). The participants were then asked to light a cigarette but not smoke it. After 10 seconds of holding the lighted cigarette in their hands, the participants had to rate their urge to smoke from a scale of 1 to 100 before extinguishing the cigarette.

The participants then inhaled a scent from a container that was either an odor they had rated as most pleasurable, the scent of tobacco, or blank. After taking one sniff, the participants had to again rate their urge to smoke. They continued to inhale the scent for the next five minutes, rating their urge to smoke every 60 seconds.

Not surprisingly, the participants rated the odor of tobacco smoke from their preferred brand of cigarettes with the highest cravings score (82.13%). However, when inhaling a pleasant odor, the average craving scores dropped significantly (19.3%), compared to smelling tobacco (11.7%) or the blank scent (11.2%).

“Despite disappointing relapse rates, there have been few new approaches to smoking cessation in general and to craving relief in particular,” said lead author Michael Sayette, of the University of Pittsburgh. “Using pleasant odors to disrupt smoking routines would offer a distinct and novel method for reducing cravings, and our results to this end are promising.”

The drop in nicotine craving lasts for as long as five minutes, which can be enough time for a smoker to decide against lighting a cigarette or leave from a high-risk situation. As to why a pleasant aroma might relieve cravings, the researchers believe that the scent may distract smokers by triggering memories associated with these cues. For instance, peppermint reminded one of the participants of childhood Christmas holidays. More research is needed to verify this hypothesis.

“Our research suggests that the use of pleasant odors shows promise for controlling nicotine cravings in individuals who are trying to quit smoking,” concluded Sayette.

The findings appeared in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Nicotine fluorescent.

Nicotine works inside our neurons to reinforce addiction

New research is looking into how nicotine works on a cellular level.

Nicotine fluorescent.

A biosensor targeted at a cell’s endoplasmic reticulum glows green in the presence of nicotine
Image credits Caltech / Lester laboratory.

Smoking tobacco makes you feel good because it floods the brain with nicotine. This nicotine latches onto specific receptors on the surface of neurons, producing feelings of happiness.

However, that’s not the whole story — only what we knew so far. To find out what happens after nicotine enters the cells, a  team of researchers at the California Institute of Technology has developed a protein sensor that glows in the presence of nicotine, allowing them to follow its movements inside cells and reveal more about the nature of nicotine addiction.

Inside job

The research was led by Henry Lester, Professor of Biology at Caltech. He has previously found that some nicotinic receptors (nAChRs) enter neurons and make a beeline for the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). Think of the ER as the cell’s protein assembly line. It synthesizes and packages proteins in order to be shipped to various other locations both inside and outside of the cell. Nicotinic receptors (nAChRs) are among these proteins.

After being synthesized in the ER, nicotinic receptors relocate to the cell’s surface. When nicotine molecules enter the body, they travel through the bloodstream and reach these nAChRs on the surface of neurons. Their merger triggers a chemical release as a reward — which we feel as happiness or pleasure. However, some of these nAChRs remain in the ER, inside the cell. In a way, they’re kept ‘in storage’ until they are needed.

In a bid to understand what nicotine does inside cells, Lester’s team developed a biosensor to allow them to track the substance inside cells. The biosensor is, in essence, a protein that can fold into an open or closed state, and an inactivated fluorescent protein. The first protein closing activates this fluorescent part, making it glow brightly. Because the first protein closes around nicotine, this biosensor allows the team to easily track where nicotine molecules pool up and how many of them are present in a given cell.

The team placed their biosensors on the endoplasmic reticulum and the surfaces of “mouse hippocampal neurons and human stem cell-derived dopaminergic neurons” among other types of cells in the lab, and then filmed the results. They report that nicotine entered into the endoplasmic reticulum within a few seconds of it reaching a cell’s surface. Nicotine levels observed inside the cells were also more than enough to affect nAChRs during their synthesis or as they were in transit towards the cellular membrane.

This last tidbit makes neurons more sensitive to the effects of nicotine, the team explains, enhancing the pleasure derived from a cigarette or an e-cigarette. It makes a person get a buzz more quickly and easily the more they smoke, the team adds. This is likely a key mechanism underpinning part of nicotine addiction.

The team’s efforts focused on isolated neurons in a lab setting. They plan to expand on their findings in the future, to determine whether nicotine behaves the same way in the neurons of live mice. They also plan to develop similar biosensors for other compounds, especially for opioids and antidepressants.

The paper “Determining the Pharmacokinetics of Nicotinic Drugs in the Endoplasmic Reticulum Using Biosensors” has been published in The Journal of General Physiology.

Hookah smoking is becoming more popular, despite health concerns

Although cigarette smoking is on a steady downward curve, a new type of smoking is starting to become more prevalent: hookah.

Alluring and mysterious, the humble hookah packs quite a punch.

Hookah (or shisha) is an instrument for vaporizing and smoking a special type of flavored tobacco. The concept is thought to have originated in medieval India and for centuries, it remained a very niche activity.

In more recent times, however, it has become increasingly popular in many parts of the world, particularly among the youth.

“When I started this research 20 years ago, I did not think that it would be a global problem. Now, hookah has moved to the U.S. and it’s one of the main tobacco products used by young Americans,” says Dr. Wasim Maziak, professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology at Florida International University in Miami.

Waziak and colleagues found that an estimated 2.6 million US adults (1% of the adult population) smoke hookah in 2017 — nearly double than what was seen in previous years. That’s much lower than the 37.8 million adult smokers in the United States but it’s still considerable — and the kids are smoking it too.

Researchers found that hookah is most common among 18- to 24-year-olds, but it’s also popular among the teens: an estimated 630,000 high school and middle school students smoked hookah in 2017.

This popularity among the youth may be owed to several factors. For starters, it’s associated with the café culture — few people smoke hookah in their own homes, you usually go to a café to smoke it with your friends, which is something that often appeals to youngsters. This also creates the impression that it’s a social activity and not a habit, which can be quite dangerous in the long run. Hookah tobacco is also flavored, usually with fruity flavors which make it much easier to inhale and much more pleasurable to a younger audience.

It’s also quite unique and different compared to other types of smoking. It consists of a head which holds the tobacco, a body of water in a glass chamber beneath it, and a small hose through which you smoke it. The tobacco is warmed using charcoal briquettes. It can be quite an interesting process to watch and follow — it’s quite the show.

However, it’s this exact uniqueness that makes it more dangerous. Hookah smoking essentially creates a pathway between the charcoal and the lungs and a typical hookah session lasts about 30 minutes, much longer than a typical cigarette break.

“This is probably as deadly as cigarettes. For certain carcinogens and toxicants, you have a much higher exposure with waterpipe smoking than cigarettes,” said Maziak.

In fact, a recent 2016 study found that hookah delivers 25 times the tar of a single cigarette, 125 times the smoke, and 10 times the carbon monoxide.

“Our results show that hookah tobacco smoking poses real health concerns and that it should be monitored more closely than it is currently,” said lead author Brian A. Primack, M.D., Ph.D., at the time.

Of course, this is not a perfect comparison because one person might smoke 20 cigarettes a day and only smoke hookah once or twice a week. Nevertheless, it’s a trend that should not be taken lightly. Recently, studies have shown more and more that hookah is becoming more prevalent, with more than 25% of all college students smoking it.

Cigarette smoking is just the most prevalent form of smoking — there are several other alternatives, with various degrees of negative health effects. For instance, electronic cigarettes have also picked up a lot of steam, which was met with mixed reactions because although they do pose health risks, these risks are considerably lower than cigarettes.

Currently, it is unclear if young smokers are aware of the dangers posed by hookah. The practice is relatively new in the Western World.

“There are concerns that hookah smoking could be addicting a new generation of kids, adolescents and young adults who aren’t fully aware of what they are smoking and the relative consequences,” said Mary Rezk-Hanna, an assistant professor at the UCLA School of Nursing.

The CDC has a compelling factsheet about smoking, mentioning among other things that it kills 480,000 Americans every year and is responsible for over 90% of all lung cancer cases.

Tobacco industry’s carbon footprint mirrors entire countries — cost of cigarettes should reflect the environmental damage, WHO says

Credit: Pixabay.

Cigarettes prices have surged in developed countries, in order to reflect their cost on national healthcare systems, as well to provide a financial disincentive for smokers to quit. But although some consumers might object, the price of a cigarette pack is still too cheap considering its environmental costs. According to a new World Health Organization (WHO) study, the tobacco industry emits as much carbon emissions as much as some entire countries, and cause massive damage to ecosystems.

Although the percentage of people who smoke has been declining in many parts of the world, due to massive population increase there are now more smokers than ever before, in absolute numbers. Overall, 933 million people smoked every day in 2015, 80% of which are men.

To meet this demand, six trillion cigarettes are manufactured each year — that’s a lot of tobacco. According to the WHO, about 5% of deforestation in parts of Asia and Africa is performed to make room for tobacco farms. About 20,000 square miles of land is taken up by tobacco farms, which use more than 22 billion tonnes of water, the report says. This makes cigarette production more environmentally costly than that of essential commodities such as food, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control found.

A person smoking a pack a day for 50 years is responsible for 1.4 million litres of water depletion

The industry is thus exploiting the fact that many developing and lower-income countries have weaker regulations, which allows them to shift the environmental and social burden overseas while reaping profits in their home countries. If you smoke cigarettes bought in a rich country, such as the UK or the United States, you’re likely smoking at the expense of other countries’ national health and natural resources. Almost 90% of all tobacco grown in the world is sourced from developing countries.

According to the report, tobacco companies severely underreport carbon emissions that are significantly lower than those tallied by scientists working on the WHO study.

Researchers found that tobacco is responsible for emitting 84 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, contributing to around 0.2% of the global total. While that might not seem like a lot, that’s as much as Peru or Israel.

The cultivation of 32.4 Mt of green tobacco used for the production of 6.48 Mt of dry tobacco in the six trillion cigarettes manufactured worldwide in 2014, were shown to contribute almost 84 Mt CO2 equiv emissions to climate change. Credit: Environmental Science and Technoloy.

The cultivation of 32.4 Mt of green tobacco used for the production of 6.48 Mt of dry tobacco in the six trillion cigarettes manufactured worldwide in 2014, were shown to contribute almost 84 Mt CO2 equivalent emissions to climate change. Credit: Environmental Science and Technology.

The report compared the impact of tobacco against other crops that typically require fewer inputs. In Zimbabwe, for instance, a hectare of land could produce 19 times more potatoes than the 1–1.2 tonnes of tobacco currently cultivated.

Tobacco also hurts the environment by depleting the soil of nutrients and spraying it with pesticides. Socially, tobacco production is also associated with child labor and other human rights problems. There’s something to be said about the pollution with cigarette butts, two-thirds of which are discarded irresponsibly. According to NBC News, cigarette butts represent the single greatest source of ocean pollution — surpassing plastic straws.

Despite the tobacco industry’s best efforts to undermine this fact, today there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that cigarettes are extremely bad for our health. Along with alcohol, tobacco products represent the biggest health to human health — more so than illegal drugs. Not many people, however, are aware of the hidden environmental costs of cigarettes and the industry that underpin their production.

The WHO urges governments to respond by increasing taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. These taxes should take into account the damage to the local ecosystems and the climate. The report also recommends banning single-use filters used for rolling tobacco or the use of unnecessary packaging.

What big tobacco companies don’t want you to know about smuggling

A new study has just shown that big tobacco companies are still supporting tobacco smuggling — while attempting to control a global system designed to prevent it. Oh, and they’re probably fooling your government in the process.

The tobacco industry certainly has a lot to account for. Not only are they responsible for a gargantuan toll on human health, but they’ve also tried to lie and cover the truth (much like the oil industry is doing now, but that’s a different story). Nowadays, although it’s still a multi-billion dollar industry, the influence of big tobacco is not at its peak — but that doesn’t mean they’re out of tricks. According to a new report, not only are they still facilitating tobacco smuggling, but they’re positioning themselves to manipulate government and other regulatory bodies.

Major tobacco companies are acting as corporate chameleons — on one hand, they’re spending copious amounts of money on advertising, trying to convince the world that they’ve changed their ways, but on the other hand, they’re doing much of the same. In order to understand the background and context of tobacco smuggling, there are two things you need to know beforehand.

For starters, they actually make money from smuggling. The money comes from distributors who buy the product, so they don’t care if it ends up on the black market or not. However, smuggled tobacco products are generally much cheaper than legal ones, which means you can sell more and make more money. Secondly, this isn’t a new thing — in the 1990s, several tobacco companies were caught orchestrating the smuggling of their own cigarettes in vast quantities. At the time, a third of the global tobacco supply went missing — turns out, not only was it smuggled, but smuggling was a core aspect of their business strategy.

The tobacco companies opted for an unlikely defense: they claimed they were the victims. They were had by something outside of their control. Even though they were making money, even though they were facilitating this whole process, they played the victim.

In order to combat tobacco smuggling, world governments adopted the Illicit Trade Protocol. Among other things, this protocol requires the implementation of a global ‘Track and Trace’ system. Basically, packs of cigarettes and rolling tobacco are to be marked with a unique ID so they can be tracked from manufacture to point of sale. If they end up on the black market, you can trace it back and see where in the supply chain things went awry. In other words, you’d be able to see if companies were indeed the victim or if they were involved in the process.

But the tobacco companies pushed their own tracking system, ‘Codentify’, a unique, supposedly unpredictable set of 12 letters and numbers that are machine generated. Having a tracking system developed by the industry that’s supposed to be regulated sounds like a bad idea, critics quickly pointed out. This would allow them to continue smuggling “with impunity,” researchers say. Aware of their own lack of credibility, big tobacco devised a conspiracy to push this system and convince governments to use it. Leaked documents show how at least four major transnational tobacco companies hatched a joint plan to use front groups and third parties to promote Codentify to governments and convince them it would be run independently of industry and under full government control.

The scale of their efforts is stunning. The companies would fund surveys and reports exaggerating the scale of the counterfeiting. They then used these reports to say that they are the victim of counterfeiting and smuggling and used this as leverage to push their own tracking system. They poured money into ex-policemen and front groups to be their “credible voice”. They used corporate espionage and peak into negotiations to which they shouldn’t have had access to, while constantly using their money and influence to try to sway public opinion, as well as the opinion of several key policymakers. The scale of this conspiracy is truly baffling, and it’s also amazing to see how many organizations and even governments gobbled it up. It seems that quite often, authorities would swallow the pill carefully crafted by the tobacco companies.

All this, researchers conclude, they continued to orchestrate tobacco smuggling.

Fool me once

These groundbreaking results have been published in two studies from the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath — an all-new $20 million global tobacco industry watchdog aiming to counter the negative influences of the tobacco industry on public health.

The primary conclusion is clear as daylight: Codentify simply cannot be trusted. There needs to be a truly independent tracking method. Andy Rowell, co-author of the first paper states:

“Governments need to be alert to what the tobacco industry is doing and to realise it is now operating via a complex web of front groups and companies. Any track and trace system linked to ‘Codentify’ simply cannot be trusted.”

The bigger conclusion, however, is even more striking. It seems that international tobacco companies have been involved in a wide array of practices ranging from ethically questionable to very illegal. They have attempted to manipulate and deceive public opinion, governments, and all sorts of regulatory bodies. Strikingly, they smuggle their own products.

Professor Anna Gilmore, Director of the Tobacco Control Research Group, explains:

“This has to be one of the tobacco industry’s greatest scams: not only is it still involved in tobacco smuggling, but big tobacco is positioning itself to control the very system governments around the world have designed to stop it from doing so. The industry’s elaborate and underhand effort involves front groups, third parties, fake news and payments to the regulatory authorities meant to hold them to account.”

But you could try to make an argument that tobacco companies are still funding important research into tobacco-related aspects — including smuggling. But quite often, this ‘research’ doesn’t do anything but murky the waters.

Lead author Allen Gallagher from the Tobacco Control Research Group at Bath says much of the tobacco-funded research is all smoke and mirrors:

“Our latest findings fit with the tobacco industry’s long history of manipulating research, including its extensive efforts to undermine and cause confusion on science showing the negative health impacts of smoking and second-hand smoke.”

Dr. Karen Evans-Reeves, another author of the study, adds:

“Despite far-reaching concerns over industry-funded data on this topic, tobacco companies continue to spend millions of pounds funding research into the illicit tobacco trade. As recently as 2016 Philip Morris International’s PMI IMPACT initiative pledged 100 million USD for this purpose. Yet, if industry-funded data consistently fails to reach the expected standards of replicable academic research, we must question if it has any use beyond helping the industry muddy the waters on an important public health issue.”

The team now call on governments and regulatory bodies to crack down on the wrongdoers — but will this really happen?

The two studies, along with an accompanying editorial, have been published in the British Medical Journal.

Robot human hand.

The Twitter discussion around vapes is grand — and 70% filled with bots

Huh. I wonder who could possibly stand to benefit from this.

Robot human hand.

Image via Tumisu / Pixabay.

Social media discussions around e-cigarettes and their effects on human health may largely be driven by bots, a new paper reports. The study, led by researchers from the San Diego State University (SDSU), dredged the depths of Twitter to study the use and perceptions of e-cigarettes in the United States. The team planned to gain a better understanding of the people talking about vaping but instead found that most such users aren’t even people.

Smoking gun

The study started with a random sample of almost 194,000 geocoded tweets from across the United States posted between October 2015 and February 2016. Out of these, the team drew 973 random tweets and analyzed them for sentiment and source — i.e. from an individual or an organization, for example. Out of these, 887 tweets were identified as posted by individuals, a category that includes potential bots.

More than 66% of tweets from individuals used a supportive tone when talking about the use of e-cigarettes. About 59 percent of individuals also shared tweets about how they personally used e-cigarettes. The team was also able to identify adolescent Twitter users and over 55% of their tweets related to e-cigarettes used a positive tone. In tweets that gave reference to the harmfulness of e-cigarettes, 54% held that e-cigarettes are not harmful, or that they are significantly less harmful than traditional cigarettes.

The study raises an important question, however. To what extent are these debates our own, and to what extent are they promoted as ‘mainstream’ and ‘widely accepted’ in order to spin public discourse and sell more products? Over 70% of the tweets the team looked at seem to be penned by bots, the researchers report. So there are more chipsets than brains participating in this conversation. To add injury to the insult, these bots pose as real people in an attempt to promote products and sway public opinion on the topic of their health effects.

“We are not talking about accounts made to represent organizations, or a business or a cause. These accounts are made to look like regular people,” said Lourdes Martinez, paper co-author. “This raises the question: To what extent is the public health discourse online being driven by robot accounts?”

And the discovery came on by accident. The team set out to use Twitter data to study what actual people discuss about on the topic of e-cigarettes. However, during their research, the team realized they were, in fact, dealing with a lot of bot accounts.

Bots ahoy

Mask smoke.

Hello, fellow humans. I am also human. I like to vape with my lung.

After observing anomalies in the dataset, namely related to confusing and illogical posts about e-cigarettes and vaping, the team reviewed user types and decided to reclassify them. They specifically made an effort to identify accounts that appeared to be operated by robots.

“Robots are the biggest challenges and problems in social media analytics,” said Ming-Hsiang Tsou, founding director of SDSU’s Center for Human Dynamics in the Mobile Age and co-author on the study.

“Since most of them are ‘commercial-oriented’ or ‘political-oriented,’ they will skew the analysis results and provide wrong conclusions for the analysis.”

The findings come just one month after Twitter purged its user base of millions of suspicious and fake accounts. The platform also announced it will launch new mechanisms aimed at identifying and fighting spam and other types of abuse on its virtual lands.

Tsou appreciates the effort and says that “some robots can be easily removed based on their content and behaviors,” while others “look exactly like human beings and can be more difficult to detect.”

“This is a very hot topic now in social media analytics research,” he says.

“The lack of awareness and need to voice a public health position on e-cigarettes represents a vital opportunity to continue winning gains for tobacco control and prevention efforts through health communication interventions targeting e-cigarettes,” the team wrote in the paper.

Martinez thinks public health agencies and organizations must make an effort to become more aware of the conversations happening on social media if they hope to have a chance of keeping the general public informed in the face of all of these bots.

“We do not know the source, or if they are being paid by commercial interests,” Martinez said. “Are these robot accounts evading regulations? I do not know the answer to that. But that is something consumers deserve to know, and there are some very clear rules about tobacco marketing and the ways in which it is regulated.”

The paper ““Okay, We Get It. You Vape”: An Analysis of Geocoded Content, Context, and Sentiment regarding E-Cigarettes on Twitter” has been published in the Journal of Health Communication.

Alcohol and tobacco, not illegal drugs, are the biggest threat to human health

What should we be more worried of: the legal, fairly common consumption of alcohol and tobacco, or the illegal drugs? Most people would answer the latter, but they’d be wrong. A new study found that the burden of death and disease falls heavily on alcohol and tobacco, both of which are legal and enjoyed by a significant portion of the population.

The study compiled the best, most up-to-date data on alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drug use. The study analyzed the impact in terms of disability-adjusted life years or DALY (a measure commonly used to assess health cost) — one DALY is one lost year of healthy life. Researchers found that in 2015, tobacco cost the world 170.9 million DALYs while alcohol cost 85 million DALYs. Meanwhile, illicit drug use turned out to be the lowest of the three, being responsible for “only” 27.8 million DALYs. While still very significant, the damage caused by illegal drugs is dwarfed by alcohol and cigarettes, which are much more common.

Available data suggests that nearly 1 in 7 adults regularly smoke tobacco, and about 1 in 5 drink heavily at least once a month. Europeans seem to take the crown for both smoking and drinking. Central, Eastern, and Western Europe recorded consistently higher alcohol consumption  — 11.61, 11.98 and 11.09 liters of pure alcohol per year, respectively. These areas also recorded the highest smoking figures, at 24.2%, 23.7%, and 20.9% respectively. However, when it comes to drug consumption, US and Canada severely outranked Europe, having one of the highest rates of cannabis, opioid, and cocaine dependence.

The authors explain that mortality rate, however, wasn’t as big in Europe as the alcohol and tobacco consumption would suggest — perhaps being offset by quality, universal healthcare.

“Europeans proportionately suffered more but in absolute terms, the mortality rate was greatest in low and middle-income countries with large populations and where the quality of data was more limited,” the authors wrote.

The authors also note an important limitation of the study: data collection is not equally reliable all over the world, so in some areas, the damage (especially that caused by illegal drugs) might not be properly understood — this is especially the case in Africa, Caribbean, and some regions of Latin America and Asia.

This study shouldn’t be understood in the sense that equal consumption of tobacco/alcohol and illegal drugs are equally damaging — of course, people consume much more alcohol and tobacco than drugs, which is why the damage is much more severe. However, for policymakers, it’s important to understand the biggest burdens to public health, and focus efforts to alleviate it. So put that cigarette down, and skip that extra beer.

The study “Global statistics on alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use: 2017 status report” by Peacock et al. was published in Addiction.


Forgotten Poison: How Cigarettes Hurt the Environment



Credit: Pixabay.

They used to say, “smoke means progress.” What “they” meant was that the appearance of a smokestack somewhere in or around your town or city was a good thing.

That smokestack, spewing out all of its voluminous toxicity, meant jobs. That smokestack was necessary to fuel industry at the turn of the last century. That smokestack was essential to producing the vital building blocks of the nation, things like steel, cars, and textiles.

Now we know better. Now, smoke means something else, not only for the human body but the wider world as well.

The extent of the environmental devastation cigarettes are responsible for is vast. Starting with the cultivation of tobacco, then moving on to the manufacture of cigarettes,

and then to when smokers dispose of them, at every stage of the life of a cigarette, there is some negative consequence to the environment.

We’ll be taking a look at some of those consequences. But we’ll also explore the impact (or lack thereof) that e cigs are having on reversing the contamination that cigarettes wreck on the planet.

The Life of a Cigarette

The creation of a cigarette involves much harm to both humans and the Earth. The growing and harvesting of tobacco are fraught with dangers. The former causes deforestation across massive tracts of land to make way for tobacco crops.

The latter, due to the nature of the tobacco plant, causes workers to fall ill with what’s known as Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS). Excessive exposure to the nicotine in the leaves of the plant is what causes GTS.

Workers experience the same symptoms of nicotine poisoning that e-cigarette users feel when they come in contact with liquid nicotine. Symptoms like nausea, dizziness, and headaches are common among tobacco harvesters, some of who are children as young as twelve-years-old.

Growing tobacco puts immense strain on the environment. A few of the consequences of tobacco cultivation include:

  • Loss of biodiversity
  • Soil erosion and degradation
  • Water pollution
  • Carbon dioxide emissions

These are only the environmental consequences of growing tobacco. Compounding the damage that tobacco cultivation causes the environment is the fact that growing tobacco is the only option many subsistence farmers have to survive.

In countries like Malawi, tobacco cultivation supports nearly 500,000 workers and is the second biggest employer in the small African nation. At the same time, Malawi has lost almost 30% of its trees in the two decades that tobacco cultivation began to take root in the early 1990s.

The government does not shy away from these harrowing environmental effects. One spokesman admitted as much when he said, “the impact of the industry on natural resources is visible … this is evident in the reduction of trees that have been cut.”

The growing of tobacco presents stark challenges to all involved, except tobacco companies. They regularly lobby against environmental regulation and win, thanks to the lax regulatory regimes in many developing nations where tobacco is grown.

Farmers need a reliable cash crop, but the environmental impact generates effects only felt in the long-term, not the short-term. Tobacco plants significantly deplete the nutrient-rich soil, making it next to impossible to grow something else after the harvest.

The workers who harvest the tobacco sometimes made up of entire families, are at risk of nicotine poisoning. But the workers seem unfazed by the trade-off between working and getting sick.

One fifteen-year-old tobacco picker from North Carolina, working in the fields since he was twelve, said he wanted to work picking tobacco.

“To me it’s kind of messed up,” he said, referring to the Human Rights Watch report that exposed the dark side of tobacco cultivation. “You got all these other people coming out here. People my age can do it. I don’t see the problem with it. It’s just more help.”

An anti-child labor advocate summed up the worker’s dilemma, which is like the plight faced by African tobacco farmers – their survival is tied inextricably to the hazardous plant. The workers and farmers may be aware of the dangers, but “being able to substitute the loss of income is something completely different.”

A Cigarette is Born

The growing and harvesting of tobacco poses health risks to tobacco workers and causes damage to the environment. But the production stage of cigarettes also causes widespread harm to both.

The World Health Organization estimates that the manufacture of cigarettes, in only one year causes over 2 000 000 tonnes of solid waste to be released into the environment. But that was back in 1995.

The WHO now estimates that since the production of cigarettes has increased annually from 5 to 6.3 trillion, those initial figures have also risen. Taking increased output into consideration, the WHO now believes that cigarettes factories have produced over a span of twenty years:

  • 45,000,000 tonnes of solid waste
  • 6,000,000 tonnes of nicotine waste
  • 4,000,000 tonnes of chemical waste

Almost every facet of making a cigarette involves some form of environmental degradation. Chemicals used in the bleaching of cigarette paper, like ammonia and hydrochloric acid seep into the groundwater as a result of run-off from cigarette factories.

The filters in filtered cigarettes are non-biodegradable. Cellulose acetate, the inorganic material that cigarette “butts” are made from takes over a dozen years to decompose.

And in the time it takes for cigarette butts to degrade, they contribute to an almost insurmountable amount of environmental catastrophe. The amount of cigarettes littered each year, nearly 4.5 trillion, is close to the number of cigarettes produced each year, making cigarette butts the most significant source of litter on the planet.

Out the Window

It seems incredible that something as small as a cigarette butt can cause so much damage. That’s why most people don’t think twice about tossing their butt out wherever they please.

But the see-no-evil approach taken by many smokers (over 75% of smokers admit to tossing out their butts) toward their butts ends up having real-world consequences.

A cigarette butt is the memory of a cigarette. It retains all those things that went into its production, things like pesticides, herbicides, tar, carcinogenic chemicals, and of course, nicotine.

And on its journey to its eventual demise, a cigarette butt can leave a treacherous wake. When left soaking in bodies of water like rivers, lakes and the ocean, cigarette butts produce substances called leachates, which creates what can only be called toxic sludge.

The amalgam of all these deadly chemicals in one substance causes death in almost half of all marine life that comes in contact with it. And if dead fishes and birds weren’t enough, cigarette butts are also notorious for killing humans in both a direct and indirect way: fire.

According to the World Health Organization, cigarette butts “remain the single most important cause of death related to fires,” with the figure standing at 540 deaths for every 2855 deaths related to fire in 2011.

In the UK, the figures are, more or less the same. In 2011, cigarettes and unextinguished cigarette butts were culpable for 34 deaths out of 1000 fires. Cigarettes were also responsible for 7% of all house fires in the England and Ireland in the years 2013-2014.

What is To Be Done?

Cigarettes are attacked continuously for their adverse health effects that their environmental impact is mostly forgotten. And yet, the breadth of the damage the production and disposal of a single cigarette can cause is breathtaking.

Environmental groups have long agitated the Big Tobacco companies for tighter environmental controls. And some, like Philip Morris and British American Tobacco, have responded. They have sponsored reforestation initiatives and have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Countries like Canada, New Zealand, and the United States have now started banning smoking in public places, to reduce the number of cigarette butts thrown into the environment. Individual cities have also adopted new measures to deal with the scourge of disposed of cigarette butts, much like they enacted bills to regulate the use of plastic bags and bottles.

Light at the End

But, cigarettes and tobacco are not going anywhere. That’s why the emergence of e-cigarettes is seen by some as the only bright light to counteract not just the negative health consequences of smoking but the environmental ones as well.

E-cigs do not produce smoke. They vaporize an e-liquid containing food-grade ingredients, and liquid nicotine, creating an inhalable aerosol, which is, according to most scientific studies, not entirely harmless. But it is much less toxic than second-hand smoke.

They also do not burn anything. Some versions are disposable, but the majority of them are reusable, which cuts down significantly on the waste they produce. Their impact on the environment is also considerably less than that of cigarettes.

While some vaporizers have built-in, internal batteries, as long as they are correctly disposed of, these devices pose little to no risk to the plant and animal life around them. But many people remain unconvinced about the safety and legitimacy of these new devices.

The fear many people show toward e-cigarettes is tragic, given the overwhelming amount of evidence of the physical, environmental and social harm caused over the lifespan of a single cigarette.

They may not be the cure-all that some say they are, but they at least represent one step toward at ensuring the survival of not only people but the planet as well.

About the Author: Phyllis Baker guest blogs about health issues, drugs rehab and addiction treatment. Currently, she is engaged in largest US quitting smoking community.

Almost 2 out of 3 people who try smoking develop a daily habit

A global study suggests that 69% of the people who tried smoking became daily smokers, even if just for a while.

Over 60% of the adult respondents answered ‘yes‘ when asked if they ever had a cigarette. Out of this whopping percent, over 2/3 started smoking daily for different periods of time. These numbers make the need to prevent teenage smoking even more pressing.

Source: Pixabay/klimkin.

Tobacco’s deceiving story

The irony lies in tobacco’s history. During a 1585 expedition, astronomer Thomas Harriot relayed that tobacco “openeth all the pores and passages of the body” so that the natives’ “bodies are notably preserved in health, and know not many grievous diseases, wherewithall we in England are often times afflicted.”

Source: Wikipedia

People genuinely believed in the therapeutical and spiritual properties of tobacco. It’s quite understandable why smoking gained such popularity worldwide. James Albert Bonsack, the American who invented the first cigarette rolling machine back in 1880, also helpeda lot in making smoking fashionable and accessible.

Bonsack’s cigarette rolling machine, as shown on U.S. patent 238,640.
Via: Wikipedia

Results of the meta-analysis encourage anti-smoking campaigns

The paper was published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research and gathered data from surveys between 2000 and 2016. These surveys involved 215,000 English speakers from the UK, US, Australia and New Zeeland.

Professor Peter Hajek from Queen Mary University of London stated in a press release that it was the first time that “the remarkable hold that cigarettes can establish after a single experience has been documented from such a large set of data.”

Via Pixabay/HansMartinPaul

“In the development of any addictive behavior, the move from experimentation to daily practice is an important landmark, as it implies that a recreational activity is turning into a compulsive need. We’ve found that the conversion rate from ‘first time smoker’ to ‘daily smoker’ is surprisingly high, which helps confirm the importance of preventing cigarette experimentation in the first place”, he added.

Keeping in mind the introduction of e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn tobacco in this past few years, new questions arise. Has classical smoking come to an end? Are the new smoking alternatives actually reducing regular tobacco use?

Via Pixabay/lindsayfox

Professor Peter Hajek says: “Concerns were expressed that e-cigarettes could be as addictive as conventional cigarettes, but this has not been the case. It is striking that very few non-smokers who try e-cigarettes become daily vapers, while such a large proportion of non-smokers who try conventional cigarettes become daily smokers. The presence of nicotine is clearly not the whole story.”

All in all, this study brings good news. The UK has recorded a dramatic reduction in smoking at the moment and this corresponds with findings that only 19 percent of 11-15-year-olds have ever tried a cigarette. The world, even just for a fleeting moment, seems to be on the right tracks.


Big Tobacco will run anti-smoking ads, one decade after court order

Anti-smoking ads, paid for by Philip Morris USA and British American Tobacco, will air on prime-time television for one whole year, starting this weekend. A federal court ordered tobacco companies 11 years ago to advertise the deadly effects of smoking on TV after it was proven that the public was deceived about the dangers of smoking.

Big Tobacco forced to admit ‘yes, our products kill people’

Infuriated by the billions the government spent and continues to spend on healthcare for smokers, the Clinton Administration filed a lawsuit in 1999 against tobacco corporations, which were accused of willfully deceiving the public. ‘Big Tobacco’ eventually lost in 2006 after a federal judge ruled that tobacco companies had “lied, misrepresented and deceived the American public” about the effects of smoking for more than 50 years.

Since racketeering laws didn’t allow the judge to force the companies to pay, they were ordered to publish ‘corrective statements’ in advertisements, but also on the companies’ affiliated websites, cigarette packs, and store branding.

However, it took 11 years for the court order to finally produce results. Since then, television networks and newspapers have lost a huge fraction of their audience, especially youngsters who are more interested in alternative channels, like social media. According to research, 9 out 10 smokers start before age 18, a demographic that is woefully missing exposure to today’s anti-smoking ads. Less than 5 percent of today’s network TV viewers are younger than 25 years, according to Nielsen TV. For this reason, many NGOs have lamented that the huge delay has made the campaign far less effective than it could have been.


Credit: Department of Justice.

The ads themselves — which will air five times per week for a whole year on TV and five times over several months in about 50 national daily papers — are bland black on white text narrated by a monotonous voice, in the case of the TV ads.

anti-tobacco ads

Credit: Department of Justice.

Some of the statements include “More people die every year from smoking than from murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes, and alcohol combined” or “Secondhand smoke causes lung cancer and coronary heart disease in adults who do not smoke,” and tobacco companies will admit they “intentionally designed cigarettes to make them more addictive.”

Anti-tobacco advocates estimate the whole campaign won’t cost more than $30 million, which is just a fraction of the $8 billion that tobacco companies pay annually on marketing, including print advertising, mailed coupons, and store displays.

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States, being responsible for 480,000 deaths annually and costing $170 billion in healthcare expenses.

[ALSO READ] Anti-smoking images on cigarette packs are twice as effective than text-only, ‘smoking kills’ labels

Dollar bills.

Increasing the price of US cigarettes by just one dollar per pack would lead to one million people kicking the habit

A one dollar per pack increase could make smokers 20% more likely to quit, a new paper reports.

Dollar bills.

Image credits Thomas Breher.

In the words famously uttered on South Park, smoking is bad, ‘mmmkay? Smoking is also extremely addictive and is the leading cause of preventable death across the world. Efforts are being made to dissuade people from picking up the habit and helping old-timers shed it, but between its addictiveness and the efforts of big tobacco to change the focus from health issues to consumers’ right to chose (to inhale death) for themselves, it’s been quite an uphill battle.

A new paper, however, comes to show that even discrete price changes can nudge users into changing their habits. The study used 10 years’ worth of neighborhood-level price data to see how it affected smoking habits, with particular attention given to long-time smokers. The results are quite surprising: even a modest, one dollar per pack increase in price can make smokers 20% more likely to quit, while old smokers were 35% more likely to quit.

More life for your buck

“Older adult smokers have been smoking for a long time and tend to have lower rates of smoking cessation compared to younger populations, suggesting deeply entrenched behavior that is difficult to change,” said Stephanie Mayne, PhD, a fellow at Northwestern and the lead author of the study.

“Our finding that increases in cigarette prices were associated with quitting smoking in the older population suggests that cigarette taxes may be a particularly effective lever for behavior change.”

The relationship between cigarette price and smoking habits on a local level is an understudied field that could hold a lot of solutions for the issue at hand, says Amy Auchincloss, PhD, associate professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health and senior author of the paper. Most results we have up to now have primarily “come from population surveillance,” she adds, which is why the team decided to zoom in on the neighborhood level.

The team followed a cohort of 632 individuals (a cohort is a group of people sharing one or more characteristics) ranging in age from 44 to 84 from six different locations including the Bronx, Chicago, and Winston-Salem. The data used in the study was recorded as a part of the Multi-Ethnic Study of Artherosclerosis (MESA) between 2002 and 2012.

After crunching up the data, the team found that smokers were 20% more likely to quit for every one dollar increase in pack price. The same increase linked to a 3% “reduction in risk of current smoking” and a 19% reduction in the average number of cigarettes smoked each day. When looking only at heavy smokers (those smoking more than half a pack a day) the same increase in price linked to 7% reduction in risk of heavy smoking, and a 35% reduction in the average number of cigarettes they smoked per day. The data focused on people older than 44, but Mayne thinks this effect may be “similar or possibly stronger in a younger population.”

“Since heavy smokers smoke more cigarettes per day initially, they may feel the impact of a price increase to a greater degree and be more likely to cut back on the number of cigarettes they smoke on a daily basis,” Mayne said.

“Some research suggests younger adults may be more price-sensitive than older adults,” she added.

Eww, price increases

The paper further “found no association between smoking bans and outcomes,” and no evidence that this price effect was “modified by the presence of [smoking] bans,” suggesting that bans in bars and restaurants don’t actually deter people from smoking. The team’s hypotheses is that the economic pressure of added cost per cigarette will provide a strong incentive for people to quit, whereas placing limits on smoking in public places doesn’t cut it — you can simply move from the non-smoking area, but you can’t pay less than the pack is priced at the teller. Not legally, anyway.

“A ban may be circumvented by going outside or staying home, whereas avoiding a price increase might take more effort,” explains Mark Stehr, PhD, associate professor in Drexel’s School of Economics and co-author of the study.

All in all, the results strongly point towards taxation as the better strategy for discouraging smoking across all ages than location bans. This monetary nudging parallels previous work where modest taxation was used to deter people from eating junk food and sugary beverages. It doesn’t have to be a price increase that actually prohibits people from buying the item, either, so their freedom of choice isn’t limited. Even a slight increase in price works because people won’t be as willing to pay $6.55 for an item that’s been $6.00 or $5.55 their whole life. Why pay more for the same product, right?

“Given our findings, if an additional one dollar was added to the U.S. tobacco tax, it could amount to upwards of one million fewer smokers,” Auchincloss concluded.

“Short of federal taxes, raising state and local taxes and creating minimum price thresholds for tobacco should be essential components of a comprehensive tobacco control strategy — particularly in places with high tobacco prevalence.”

The paper “Longitudinal Associations of Local Cigarette Prices and Smoking Bans with Smoking Behavior in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA)” has been published in the journal Epidemiology.

Russia plans to ban all tobacco sales in 2033

The Russian Government is considering implementing a nation-wide ban of tobacco in 2033. The decision would mark the last step in the country’s fight against rising smoking rates, but has also drawn some criticism.

Image credits C. Koch / Pixabay.

Smoking is bad for you, m’kay? It is one of the world’s leading causes of preventable chronic disease and takes a huge toll on future generations. Cigarette butts are also probably the most littered item in the world, so your smoking is bad for everything else around you too.

Banning the vice

Just to come clean here, I’m also a smoker. So I don’t judge. I do try to advise others from picking up the habit, however, and am in a constant state of quitting myself. And people in developed countries have generally smarted up and smoking rates drop here but they’re still going strong in developing and third world countries.

Part of the problem is that the US and EU maintain a freedom-of-choice-view on the issue. Without any serious legal precedent to limit its use, big tobacco can pour resources to strong-arm these states into passing favorable legislature. Together with populations who are rarely informed of the full implications of smoking, these countries are prime targets for tobacco companies.

Russia is considering tackling smoking in a whole different way, though. The country’s government is considering a total ban on tobacco and tobacco products for 2033. In effect, this will ban every generation born 2015 and later from legally purchasing tobacco in the country. This would be the nation’s last move in their effort to bring its huge smoking rate down to 25% by 2025. Newspaper Izvestia also reports that some Russians have already kicked the habit over the last 7 years, with a 6% drop bringing the national smoking rate to 33%.

What to expect

The World Health Organization estimates that there are around 1.1 billion tobacco smokers worldwide. Though that number is falling overall, certain regions such as Africa and the Mediterranean see a steady rise in smoking rates. While taking the whole of Russia’s population out of that billion certainly is a solid idea, one can’t hope but be reminded of the American prohibition.

In the end, banning tobacco is bound to be easier said than done. Certain Russian politicians have also voiced their concern that black market tobacco sales will skyrocket following the ban. So it could simply prove too hard to enforce.

Still, with the huge social and economical cost associated with smoking, Russia will likely try to enforce the ban no matter how hard it proves to be.

Smoking one pack a day causes your lung cells’ DNA to mutate 150 times every year

Researchers have quantified the damage smoking does in different organs of the body for the first time and have also identified several different mechanisms by which tobacco smoke causes mutations to appear in DNA. The new study published by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and contributors, found that smokers show an average of 150 extra mutations per cell in their lungs for each year of smoking one pack a day.

Image credits Sasuka / Pixabay.

The study provides a clear and solid link between the number of cigarettes smoked over a person’s lifetime and the number of mutations in tumor DNA. The highest rates were seen in the organs and body parts which come into contact with smoke — particularly lungs — but other areas also showed damage from smoking. Tumors in these areas also contained smoking-associated mutations even if they don’t come into contact with smoke — helping to explain why smoking can cause multiple types of cancer in humans.

Cancer appears when a cell’s DNA becomes too different from its original state by accumulating mutations. The study provides the first comprehensive analysis of the genetic make-up of cancerous cells linked to smoking. The team studied over 5,000 tumors, comparing cancer cells from smokers to those of non-smokers (people who had never smoked were selected). They found that smoking left molecular “fingerprints” on DNA, called mutational signatures, and counted how many of these particular variations existed in different tumors. On average, they found, one-pack-a-day smokers developed 150 new mutations in each lung cell per year. And each one of these mutations could lead to cancer.

“Before now, we had a large body of epidemiological evidence linking smoking with cancer, but now we can actually observe and quantify the molecular changes in the DNA due to cigarette smoking,” said Dr Ludmil Alexandrov, first author from Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“With this study, we have found that people who smoke a pack a day develop an average of 150 extra mutations in their lungs every year, which explains why smokers have such a higher risk of developing lung cancer.”

While the exact number of mutations per lung cell will obviously vary from individual to individual, the study found it’s not only lung cancer smokers have to worry about. Larynx cells, for example, rake in an average of 97 mutations per year; for pharynx cells, an average of 39 mutations was recorded. Mouth cells, 23. Bladder, 18 mutations, and liver cells 6 mutations per year. While it was known that smoking increases the overall risk of cancer in other parts of the body than the respiratory system, we didn’t really understand why. The team revealed that different mechanisms determine mutations from tobacco smoke in different parts of the body.

“The results are a mixture of the expected and unexpected, and reveal a picture of direct and indirect effects,” said Prof David Phillips, co-author of the paper and Professor of Environmental Carcinogenesis at King’s College London.

“Mutations caused by direct DNA damage from carcinogens in tobacco were seen mainly in organs that come into direct contact with inhaled smoke. In contrast, other cells of the body suffered only indirect damage, as tobacco smoking seems to affect key mechanisms in these cells that in turn mutate DNA.”

Smoky business

Five distinct mechanisms of DNA damage were identified. The most widespread is a mutational signature found in all cancers — here, tobacco seems to accelerate a kind of cellular clock that mutates DNA prematurely.

“The genome of every cancer provides a kind of “archaeological record,” written in the DNA code itself, of the exposures that caused the mutations that lead to the cancer,” said Professor Sir Mike Stratton, joint lead author from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.”

“Our research indicates that the way tobacco smoking causes cancer is more complex than we thought. Indeed, we do not fully understand the underlying causes of many types of cancer and there are other known causes, such as obesity, about which we understand little of the underlying mechanism. This study of smoking tells us that looking in the DNA of cancers can provide provocative new clues to how cancers develop and thus, potentially, how they can be prevented.”

Smoking has been epidemiologically linked with at least 17 different types of human cancer. There are roughly six million tobacco-associated fatalities every year, worldwide. The WHO predicts that, if current trends continue, we’ll see more than 1 billion tobacco-related deaths by the end of the century.

The full paper, “Mutational signatures associated with tobacco smoking in human cancer” has been published in the journal BioRxiv.


Is secondhand marijuana smoke as damaging as tobacco smoke?

With the increased acceptance and legalization of marijuana in many parts of the world, studies are now trying to determine its effects on health. Although many think of marijuana smoke as less harmful than tobacco smoke, a new study suggests that secondhand smoke poses dangers to our cardiovascular system whether it stems from marijuana or tobacco.

Image credit Pixabay

Image credit Pixabay

The study found that in laboratory rats exposed to secondhand smoke from a marijuana cigarette, blood vessels had difficulty widening, much like the vessels in rats who were exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke.

“While the effect is temporary for both cigarette and marijuana smoke, these temporary problems can turn into long-term problems if exposures occur often enough and may increase the chances of developing hardened and clogged arteries,” said Matthew Springer, professor of medicine at the University of California and senior author of the study.

In addition, the data revealed that rats exposed to marijuana smoke for one minute took 90 minutes to recover fully, approximately three times as long as rats that were exposed to tobacco smoke. However, when the researchers removed tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) from the marijuana cigarettes, the blood vessel disruption was still observed, suggesting that it is the burning smoke rather than the active components of marijuana responsible for the narrowing of the rats’ blood vessels.

As of now, long-term studies on the effects of marijuana on cardiovascular function are limited, especially when it comes to secondhand smoke. There is even some evidence that although inhaling marijuana poses immediate and temporary cardiovascular risks, its modulation of the endocannabinoid system can actually slow down the development of atherosclerosis. Additional long-term research will need to be conducted to get a final answer on the exact negative effects of marijuana smoke.

“There is widespread belief that, unlike tobacco smoke, marijuana smoke is benign,” Springer said. “We in public health have been telling the public to avoid secondhand tobacco smoke for years, but we don’t tell them to avoid secondhand marijuana smoke, because until now we haven’t had evidence that it can be harmful.”

“Increasing legalization of marijuana makes it more important than ever to understand the consequences of exposure to secondhand marijuana smoke,” the team concluded. “It is important that the public, medical personnel, and policymakers understand that exposure to secondhand marijuana smoke is not necessarily harmless.”

Journal Reference: One Minute of Marijuana Secondhand Smoke Exposure Substantially Impairs Vascular Endothelial Function. 27 July 2016. 10.1161/JAHA.116.003858

e-cigarette youth

Blowing vapor: cigarette use plummets among youth in schools, but e-cigs take their place

Electronic cigarettes have soared in use among high school and middle school kids, tripling in 2014, while cigarettes have reached an all time low. The report was issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found  4.6 million middle and high school students were current users of any tobacco product, which includes e-cigs despite the fact that it doesn’t burn or contain any tobacco – just the nicotine.

e-cigarette youth

Among high school students, e-cigarette use jumped to 13.4 percent in 2014 from 4.5 percent in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cigarette use over the same period fell to 9.2 percent from 12.7 percent, the largest year-over-year decline in more than a decade. Among middle school students, current e-cigarette use more than tripled to 3.9 percent in 2014 from 1.1 percent in 2013, while cigarette use remained unchanged, the CDC said.

So, should we be excited by the news or, on the contrary, more worried? Tobacco control advocates fear that e-cigs are a “gateway” that promote an unhealthy lifestyle and make kids prone to addiction later in life. Sort of like wearing a seat belt, but driving faster because you feel safer.

“Nicotine exposure at a young age may cause lasting harm to brain development, promote addiction, and lead to sustained tobacco use,” Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said in a statement.

Mitch Zeller, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s tobacco division, said the data “forces us to confront the reality that the progress we have made in reducing youth cigarette smoking rates is being threatened.”

Just as well, however, the data could be interpreted as a sign that smoking rates fell because young people took up e-cigarettes instead of traditional cigarettes. The CDC said nearly half the students used more than one tobacco product. The most popular was e-cigarettes, followed by hookah. Cigarettes came in third place followed by cigars, smokeless tobacco and pipes.

A  meta-study which examined 81 e-cigarette studies found that these are less harmful than tobacco cigarettes, and that their introduction reduces the number of tobacco-related deaths. The long term effects of e-cigarette use are, however, largely unknown. Because of this, the World Health Organization and national authorities are considering policies to restrict their sales, advertising and use given the absence of evidence that they help smokers quit, and the way they are being exploited by the tobacco industry to target children.

Marijuana is much safer than tobacco and alcohol, study concludes

A new study has concluded that substances like alcohol or tobacco are much more dangerous than marijuana. Alcohol is actually the most dangerous substance studied here – more dangerous than heroin, cocaine, ecstasy or meth.

marijuanamarijuana bun

Researchers sought to quantify the risk of death associated with the use of a variety of commonly used substances – be they legal or illegal. Despite often being thought of as similar in some regards, weed and alcohol are actually on opposite ends of the spectrum – with weed being 114 times safer than alcohol.

“The toxicological approach validates epidemiological and social science-based drug ranking approaches especially in regard to the positions of alcohol and tobacco (high risk) and cannabis (low risk)”, the study reads. “Our results confirm previous drug rankings based on other approaches. Specifically, the results confirm that the risk of cannabis may have been overestimated in the past”.

The study used a slightly different methodology than previous research, but their results are coherent with previous reports. They used the margin of exposure (MOE) approach. The MOE is defined as ratio between toxicological threshold (benchmark dose) and estimated human intake.

Still the fact that alcohol is more dangerous than heroin for example should not be understood as the pound per pound danger – much of the dangers related to the drug consumption (alcohol included here) come not directly from consumption, but also from the environmental conditions and secondary effects.

Of course, weed being “safer than alcohol” doesn’t make it “safe” – it’s still not a recommended substance, it just means that the risks have been overestimated by both medical researchers and policy makers. There are still risks associated with marijuana consumption – like sleep impairment, a halt in brain development and a loss of overall pleasure in life. But this being said, many common substances can have significant negative effects – eat too much sugar and you’ll become overweight, have bad teeth and maybe even diabetes. The difference is in the way these substances are managed.

Image via Creative Commons.

“Many governments in Europe have favoured more restrictive policies with respect to illicit drugs than for alcohol or tobacco, on the grounds that they regard both illicit drug abuse and related problems as a significantly larger problem for society. Drug rankings can therefore be useful to inform policy makers and the public about the relative importance of licit drugs (including prescription drugs) and illicit drugs for various types of harm,” authors say. In other words, we’re dealing with a double standard here – alcohol and tobacco, which are much more dangerous then marijuana are legal, while marijuana is illegal.

I just wish organizations fighting against marijuana legalization would focus on more dangerous substances – like alcohol and tobacco. Legal drugs are killing us more than illegal drugs.

“Currently, the MOE results point to risk management prioritization towards alcohol and tobacco rather than illicit drugs. The high MOE values of cannabis, which are in a low-risk range, suggest a strict legal regulatory approach rather than the current prohibition approach”, the study concludes.

Journal Reference: Dirk W. Lachenmeiera and Jürgen Rehm. Comparative risk assessment of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and other illicit drugs using the margin of exposure approach. Published online 2015 Jan 30. doi:  10.1038/srep08126


This plant may look like an ordinary tobacco plant, but on the inside it was engineered to express bacteria proteins which helps it perform more efficient photosynthesis. Photo: Rothamsted Research

Tobacco plants borrowing bacteria genes achieve more efficient photosynthesis

This plant may look like an ordinary tobacco plant, but on the inside it was engineered to express bacteria proteins which helps it perform more efficient photosynthesis. Photo: Rothamsted Research

This plant may look like an ordinary tobacco plant, but on the inside it was engineered to express bacteria proteins which helps it perform more efficient photosynthesis. Photo: Rothamsted Research

It wouldn’t be an understatement to say we owe all the wonders of life to photosynthesis – the ability of plants and certain bacteria to convert CO2 into energy (sugars) and food. Scientists have for some time attempted to enhance photosynthesis through genetic manipulation, but it’s only recently that we’re beginning to see these efforts take form. The most recent breakthrough was made by a team of British and American biologists  who report they’ve  successfully infused tobacco plants with bacterial genes – a first step towards engineering crops that grow faster, offer higher yields and use less fertilizers.

Better photosynthesis, more food

Cyanobacteria – single-celled organisms also known as blue algae – are far more better at converting CO2 to useful energy than plants. Part of the reason is that the bacteria use an upgraded version of an enzyme called  rubisco, which is the protein that converts CO2 into sugar, and is possibly the most abundant protein on Earth. About half of all the soluble proteins found in leaves are rubisco.

In plants, however, rubisco isn’t that efficient and scientists have been trying to find ways to boost it for some time. If such an attempt were to be proven entirely successful, then crops with the equivalent bacterial photosynthesis ability would cut fertilizer needs and increase crop production by 35 and 60 percent. But researchers at Cornell University, USA and Rothamsted Research, UK claim they’ve managed to solve one piece of the puzzle: they’ve modified tobacco plants that produce functional rubisco from the cyanobacterium Synechococcus elongatus.

This wasn’t an easy job, though. While previous attempts focused on swapping bacterial genes that code for the turbocharged rubisco, the team also made other genetic substitutions  that encode proteins that manufacture the rubisco. The modified plants confer CO2 into sugar faster than normal tobacco, a sign that photosynthesis had been sped up and that the researchers are heading in the right direction.

Yet they still have their work cut out for them. While the photosynthesis is more efficient, the plants themselves grew significantly slower. The researchers report:

“We grew our [genetically engineered] plants in a CO2 elevated environment” with more 22 times the amount of normal amount of the gas, “and they still were growing slightly slower than the normal type plants.”


While the algal rubisco makes the photosynthesis more efficient, the tobacco plant wasn’t completely engineered to mimic the whole process the bacteria use. Namely, cyanobacteria employ β-carboxysome shell proteins that ward off oxygen, creating a tiny, CO2-rich environments for their rubisco. Normal plants on the other hand lack this shell and consequently adapted by using a form of rubisco that is slower and less efficient, but which none the less is also capable of picking CO2 in favor of O2. In the case of our modified tobacco plant, the Rubisco is bacterial, but without the shell, a lot of energy is wasted on reacting with oxygen.

Obviously, researchers are concentrating on how to integrate the shell with the bacterial rubisco. So far, developments have been promising since the same team engineered tobacco plants that could generate carboxysome-like structures a while back. Integrating the findings of the two bodies of research might finally take food production to a new level.

While genetically modified plants, fertilizers and pesticides have made crop yields go a long way, the momentum sparked a couple of decades ago is steadily running out. Soon enough, we’ll have to find new ways to increase food production per unit area to keep up with an ever expanding population. Tweaking photosynthesis may be just one in many such efforts.

Findings appeared in Nature.

The insides of an electronic cigarette

E-cigarettes are less harmful than tobacco variety, yet debate still lingers

Electronic cigarettes have increasingly grown in popularity, being marketed as an alternative to smoking tobacco, which contains much more toxic chemicals, and as a means to help smokers put the pipe down for good. There’s been a lot of debate surrounding the health risks following e-cigs use, some voices claiming these do little to help people quite smoking and that they’ve actually become part of the tobacco industry’s ploy to attract children to regular, tobacco cigarettes. A new meta-study that examined 81 e-cigarette studies found that these are less harmful than conventional cigarettes, and that their introduction reduces the number of tobacco-related deaths. The long term effects of e-cigarette use are, however, largely unknown.

[READ] Just a single cigarette has extremely harmful effects

Even so, the World Health Organization and national authorities are considering policies to restrict their sales, advertising and use given the absence of evidence that they help smokers quit, and the way they are being exploited by the tobacco industry to target children. Prof Peter Hajek, of Queen Mary University in London is one of the authors of the present study, part of an international team of researchers. He and colleagues found that the risks to users and passive bystanders are far less than those posed by cigarette smoke and that while electronic cigarettes contain a few of the toxins seen in tobacco smoke, these are seen at much lower levels. Furthermore, they found no evidence that children move from experimenting with e-cigarettes to regular use.

“This is not the final list of risks, others may emerge”, he said speaking for the BBC.

“But regulators need to be mindful of crippling the e-cigarette market and by doing so failing to give smokers access to these safer products that could save their lives.

“If harsh regulations are put in place now, we will damage public health on a big scale.”

The insides of an electronic cigarette

The insides of an electronic cigarette

A cigarette has 4,000 plus chemicals and a portion of those have been validated has being cancer causing. E-cigarettes, in contrast, typically contain three substances: flavor, nicotine, and glycol/vegetable glycerine. A review published in the journal Circulation, however, found e-cigs deliver high levels of nanoparticles, the researchers found, which can trigger inflammation and have been linked to asthma, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.

At least 1 in 5 smokers has tried e-cigarettes, as have 10 percent of U.S. high school students, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No longer a niche products, e-cigs are growing fast and comprise a multi-billion dollar market.

Whatever’s the case, the debate is far from over. On one side we have those who support e-cigs, citing they help reduce tobacco consumption, and the other we have voices who are very skeptical of their benefits and call for immediate regulation. The findings appeared in the journal Addiction.