Vice Squad
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Subsidize Safer Cigarettes?

A friend of Vice Squad brought our attention to "A Two-Cigarette Society," an op-ed by David G. Adams in last Monday's New York Times. The idea is to prohibit the sale of "regular" cigarettes to youths, perhaps those under 21. But cigarettes that have very low levels of nicotine would be available at an earlier age. The motivation is harm reduction: don't try to keep older teens from smoking, but try to guide their smoking in a direction that is not very harmful. Presumably the negligible amounts of nicotine in the "youth" cigarettes would not stoke addiction, so that when the youthful smokers want to quit -- and the vast majority of habitual smokers say they want to quit -- they will be able to do so easily. (The author even sees the low-nicotine cigarette as a stepping stone to eventual prohibition of the fully nicotinized version.) One related idea that we could implement without the rest of the two-cigarette solution would be to base cigarette excise taxes on nicotine content, to encourage the production and consumption of lower-nicotine varieties. And then there is snus, of course, as a complementary form of tobacco harm reduction.

The two-cigarette proposal motivated two letters, published in today's Times, in response. The first letter recapitulates the usual zero tolerance v. harm reduction debate: the two-cigarette proposal represents "one of the worst ideas I have heard in a long time;" the letter writer's alternative: "Let’s continue focusing our resources on gradually, but finally, creating a no-cigarette society."

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