When natural isn't always the best


This article originally appeared in the National Times 

Recently, I was waiting for a train at North Richmond, huddling out of the rain, when a tough-looking man came up just near me and lit up a cigarette. Within seconds, another man came over to bot one, which was duly handed over with a friendly smile. By way of thanks — but not entirely graciously — he started a conversation about how he usually smokes roll-your-owns.

The tough-looking man wasn't quite sure how to respond. "I guess it's cheaper . . ." he ventured.

"Cheaper and better for ya mate. Less chemicals than in these."

"What? These have got chemicals in them?"

"Yeah! Tailors all have chemicals in 'em. Those too."

"Oh . . ."

The tough-looking man went quiet and puffed a bit harder. The other man was clearly pleased to have been able to share his knowledge, although he didn't seem overly worried about the chemicals he was inhaling as a result of botting a tailor-made.

Lots of smokers make the call that what they smoke is preferable to what other people smoke. For decades, smokers were enticed to switch to "light" or "mild" cigarettes, enabling them to console themselves that they were loosening nicotine's grip and taking in less "tar" at the same time (although, unfortunately, they were wrong on both counts). No brands are allowed to be labelled "light" or "mild" now, but they can still be labelled "smooth" and "fine" and many smokers continue to mistakenly trust the evidence of their senses and believe that these less harsh-tasting brands are less harmful. Other smokers use different reasoning to convince themselves that smoking roll-your-owns is the "safer" option — not unusual among smokers.

One of our ongoing problems in tobacco control is conveying the distinction between what is added to tobacco by cigarette companies and what happens when you cure and then burn tobacco. The reality is that the nasty chemicals that can be isolated from cigarette smoke overwhelmingly come from the combustion of tobacco, rather than from any non-tobacco ingredients. To give an example that will be familiar to readers: one of the toxic substances smokers inhale is acetone, a major ingredient of nail polish remover and paint stripper. Putting significant amounts of acetone into your lungs is certainly something to avoid. However, it's there in all tobacco smoke from the combustion of sugars. The tobacco industry do not add nail polish remover or paint stripper to factory made cigarettes.

The public health messages that draw attention to chemicals such as acetone being found in tobacco smoke have been crafted precisely to get smokers to think "yuk!" and push them further along the track towards quitting. However, as an unintended consequence of drawing attention to "chemicals" in cigarette smoke, some smokers have gone in search of cigarettes that don't contain "chemicals". It's not too hard to see how some smokers arrive at the decision that roll-your-own cigarettes are "better for you". The associations we habitually make between "hand-made" and "natural" with "goodness" are readily put to work in favour of concluding that smoking roll-your-owns is preferable to smoking factory-made cigarettes. You just have to avoid thinking too much about the possibility that your reasoning was entirely wrong.

To those who are prepared to be convinced I would offer the following basic facts about how roll-your-own and factory-made cigarettes are the same for practical purposes. Roll-your-own tobacco is cut in longer thinner strands than the tobacco in factory made cigarettes but otherwise it is overwhelmingly the same – the same tobacco varieties grown in the same soil, sprayed with the same pesticides and cured in the same barns.

Secondly, roll-your-own tobacco contains the same additives as are in factory-made cigarettes, although some of these are actually added at higher levels. They are usually innocuous sounding things such as sugar, honey, liquorice and cocoa but used for the not-so-innocuous purpose of making cigarettes more pleasant to smoke.

We know from smoke chemistry research that when you collect smoke from roll-your-own cigarettes and factory-made cigarettes you find the same range of carcinogens and other toxins at much the same concentrations. We also know from toxicological research that the urine of roll-your-own smokers and factory-made cigarette smokers contains the same break-down products of carcinogens and other toxins at much the same levels.

All the science is in on this. I know many smokers distrust the "official" science on smoking and health and some have a story to tell about how we let tobacco companies get away with adding all sorts of nasty chemicals to cigarettes, because we want cigarettes to be as dangerous as possible to make smokers quit. So, it is scientists and anti-smoking campaigners, rather than the tobacco industry, that are the bad guys in the story. However, it simply isn't true.

The tobacco industry should definitely be banned from using additives but the effect won't be to make cigarettes less harmful, it will be to make them harsher and less pleasant tasting. That could discourage people from starting to smoke and to make it a bit easier for those who are hooked already to finally quit. Which I hope everyone could eventually come to see would be a very good thing.

Bill King has researched smokers' beliefs and tobacco industry regulation for 10 years at the Cancer Council Victoria and is currently an honorary research associate.