Are you addicted to nicotine?

The tobacco industry knew for more than 40 years that the nicotine in tobacco smoke was addictive. In private, the reason why people smoke – namely addiction to nicotine – has know as the primary reason why people smoke. In public, the tobacco industry has denied this, or, more recently, tried to alter the definition of addiction. As a whole, the industry claims that it has never been deceitful on the issue of nicotine and addiction:

“We have not concealed, we do not conceal, and we will never conceal….[We] have no internal research which proves that smoking…is addictive.” (BAT, 1996)

There are numerous publicly available (thanks to lawsuits) documents that contradict this stance though…

“We have, then, as our first premise, that the primary motivation for smoking is to obtain the pharmacological effect of nicotine.” (Philip Morris, 1969)

“Different people smoke for different reasons. But the primary reason is to deliver nicotine into their bodies. Nicotine is an alkaloid derived from the tobacco plant. It is a physiologically active, nitrogen-containing substance. Similar organic chemicals include nicotine, quinine, cocaine, atropine and morphine.” (Philip Morris, undated)

“Let’s face facts: Cigarette smoke is biologically active. Nicotine is a potent pharmacological agent. Every toxicologist, physiologist, medical doctor and most chemists know that. It’s not a secret.” (Philip Morris, 1982)

To mitigate the evils of tobacco smoke, the tobacco industry has viewed itself as selling nicotine, rather than cigarettes:

“Nicotine is addictive. We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine—an addictive drug effective in the release of stress mechanisms.” (Brown & Williamson, 1963)

“In a sense, the tobacco industry may be thought of as being a specialized, highly ritualized, and stylized segment of the pharmaceutical industry. Tobacco products uniquely contain and deliver nicotine, a potent drug with a variety of physiological effects.” (RJ Reynolds, 1972)

“It may be useful, therefore, to look at the tobacco industry as if for a large part its business is the administration of nicotine (in the clinical sense).” (BAT, 1967)

“…BAT should learn to look at itself as a drug company rather than as a tobacco company.” (BAT, 1980)

Although the tobacco industry has fought government efforts to regulate cigarettes as drug-delivery devices, in private that is exactly how they see their product:

“The cigarette should be conceived not as a product but as a package. The product is nicotine.…Think of the cigarette pack as a storage container for a day’s supply of nicotine.…Think of a cigarette as a dispenser for a dose unit of nicotine. Think of a puff of smoke as the vehicle of nicotine.…Smoke is beyond question the most optimised vehicle of nicotine and the cigarette the most optimised dispenser of smoke.” (Philip Morris, 1972)

“…The primary motivation for smoking is to obtain the pharmacological effect of nicotine. In the past, we at R&D have said that we’re not in the cigarette business, we’re in the smoke business. It might be more pointed to observe that the cigarette is the vehicle of smoke, smoke is the vehicle of nicotine, and nicotine is the agent of a pleasurable body response.” (Philip Morris, 1969)

“A cigarette as a ‘drug’ administration system for public use has very, very significant advantages: Speed. Within 10 seconds of starting to smoke, nicotine is available in the brain. Before this, impact is available, giving an instantaneous catch or hit, signifying to the user that the cigarette is ‘active.’ Flavour, also, is immediately perceivable to add to the sensation. Other ‘drugs’ such as marijuana, amphetamines, and alcohol are slower and may be mood dependent.” (BAT, undated)

Animal experiments referenced in the literature and found in tobacco company documents confirm the companies’ awareness of the addictive properties of nicotine:

“…Monkeys can be trained to inject themselves with nicotine for its own sake, just as they will inject other dependence-producing drugs, e.g., opiates, caffeine, amphetamine, cocaine. … The absorption of nicotine through the lungs is as quick as the junkie’s ‘fix’.” (Brown & Williamson, 1973)

Philip Morris conducted studies in rats demonstrating that nicotine is self-administered by rats and has other hallmark properties of addictive substances. Therefore, The companies realize that reducing and/or eventually eliminating nicotine from tobacco products will cause smokers to quit:

“If, as proposed above, nicotine is the ‘sine qua non’ of smoking, and if we meekly accept the allegations of our critics and move toward reduction or elimination of nicotine in our products, then we shall eventually liquidate our business. If we intend to remain in business and our business is the manufacture and sale of dosage forms of nicotine, then at some point we must make a stand.”'(R.J. Reynolds, undated)

The companies continue to deny that they can or do manipulate nicotine levels in cigarettes. Their internal documents say otherwise. The nicotine level of cigarettes

“…was not obtained by accident….[We] can regulate, fairly precisely, the nicotine and sugar levels to almost any desired level management might require.” (BAT, 1963)

The companies recognize that by publicly admitting that nicotine is addictive, they would undermine their argument that people’s decision to smoke is a “free choice”:

“…The entire matter of addiction is the most potent weapon a prosecuting attorney can have in a lung cancer/cigarette case. We can’t defend continued smoking as ‘free choice’ if the person was ‘addicted’.” (Tobacco Institute, 1980)

“To some extent the argument revolving around ‘free choice’ is being negated on the grounds of addiction. The threat is that this argument will increase significantly and lead to further restrictions on product specifications and greater danger in litigation.” (Brown & Williamson, 1973)

“It has been suggested that cigarette smoking is the most addictive of habits — that nicotine is the most addictive drug. Certainly large numbers of people will continue to smoke because they are unable to give it up. If they could they would do so. They can no longer be said to make an adult choice.” (BAT, 1980)

So publicly, the industry argues that nicotine is important for taste or flavour and that nicotine is not addictive:

“The claim that cigarette smoking causes physical dependence is simply an unproven attempt to find some way to differentiate smoking from other behaviors. … The claims that smokers are “addicts” defy common sense and contradict the fact that people quit smoking every day.” (Tobacco Institute, 1988)

“Those who term smoking an addiction do so for ideological—not scientific—reasons.” (Philip Morris, 1996)

These denials culminated in U.S. Congressional hearings in 1994 when the chief executive officers of the seven largest American tobacco companies all testified that nicotine is not addictive:

“I do not believe that nicotine is addictive.” — Thomas Sandefur (Brown & Williamson)

“I believe nicotine is not addictive.” — William Campbell(Philip Morris)

In the late 1990s, as these damning internal documents came to light, the companies responded by trying to fudge and change the definition of addiction—which they now apply to such activities as shopping or the Internet:

“The definition of addiction is wide and varied. People are addicted to the Internet. Others are addicted to shopping, sex, tea, and coffee. The line I would take is that tobacco isn’t addictive but habit forming.” (Tobacco Marketing Association, 1998)