By Mariana Cuervo, Elizabeth Montana, Brian Smith, and Sadie Pitzenberger
Is your local gas station attendant a drug dealer? Most people would say no, yet he readily deals all day long with customers looking for their next nicotine fix. Nicotine, the addictive substance in tobacco, keeps its users hooked.
Even though most people do not consider tobacco to be a drug, this post will show that it is exactly that. Tobacco delivers similar neurobiological effects as illegal substances like cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana, all more commonly associated with the word “drug.” With tobacco, however, advertising and the law contribute to the common perception that tobacco is not a drug.
Just like on the street corner, where you might be able to buy crack, marijuana or meth, a gas station offers different types of drugs. Tobacco itself comes in many forms: dip, snuff, cigars and, of course cigarettes.
Chewing tobacco or “dip” is a smokeless form of tobacco, which when packed into the lip allows nicotine to flow into the bloodstream via the gum line. Snuff, a finer form of tobacco, is snorted while cigarettes are smoked. Both provide an alternative way to get a nicotine high.
The ways in which these tobacco products are consumed mirror the techniques of cocaine consumption – coca leaves are chewed, cocaine is snorted, and crack is smoked. So how is tobacco different?
And just like marijuana tobacco is grown in the ground, picked and dried, and then rolled into cigars and cigarettes. Tobacco has nicotine while marijuana has tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Both are responsible for getting the user high.
Cigarettes, the most widely used form of tobacco, contain many harmful additives, including those that cause cancer and other health-related complications. Many of the oral complications associated with tobacco use are similar to those found in the mouths of meth users. Tooth decay and gum disease are unpleasant side effects of both drugs. Tobacco, however, has been proven to cause mouth and throat cancer.
So, why is it that you are considered a drug addict because you smoke meth but not if you smoke cigarettes?
A Puff Is All It Takes: Drugs and the Brain
All major drugs, including cocaine, marijuana and nicotine, affect many functions of the central nervous system. Within just ten seconds of taking a puff, nicotine impacts you.
The central nervous system regulates the release of neurotransmitters, which act as messengers that the brain uses to communicate to the rest of the body. This process is sensitive. An overload of a certain neurotransmitter will result in a slower release of that neurotransmitter. At the same time, too little of one will result in an increase in production. The introduction of a foreign substance into the body results in a change in the system.
Although the body regulates neurotransmitters, it cannot control foreign substances like drugs. This process applies to illegal and legal drugs alike. Over time, the body gets used to having the added substance in its system. After a period of use, the body changes the way it functions to adjust for the drug. After quitting, however, the body has the ability to readjust itself and return to normal functioning. This adjustment produces the withdrawal symptoms most people experience.
The dopamine system is one of the main systems responsible for the addiction that accompanies most drugs. All major drugs including nicotine directly or indirectly impact this system.
Multiple regions of the brain are part of the dopamine system, and are affected as follows:
• Ventral tegmental area (VTA) – helps drive the search for the substance
• Nucleus accumbens – involved in the desire felt for the drug
• Prefrontal cortex – linked to shifts in attention to preparing and consuming the drug
Nicotine increases the level of dopamine in the brain, thus increasing the level of reward experienced by the user. The effect of nicotine on the brain, however, is relatively short, and so can help create repeated cravings. Given the similar neurobiological effects of illegal drugs and tobacco, nicotine is a drug.
Advertising: Tobacco’s Biggest Advantage?
Tobacco is not just a drug, it’s a super drug. Both its legal status and advertisements have created an illusion that tobacco is not a drug. As such, billions of dollars have been invested in tobacco campaigns to make the drug an everyday product. Illegal drugs cannot operate with large-scale advertising campaigns.
Using television and radio until 1969, when such forms of tobacco advertising were effectively outlawed, and still with continued print and open-air advertising, tobacco companies have had ample time to convince Americans that their products are not drugs. Their ultimate goal is to get people addicted without thinking that they are drug addicts.
Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, tobacco companies focused their advertising dollars on luring Americans toward cigarettes. As is still done today, they created a slew of different ads that spoke separately to men, women and youth. The ads show good looking men and women, and do not depict what most Americans would think of when they think of drug users.
The different ads may speak to different demographics, but they all work towards five goals:
1) keep smokers smoking
2) convince people who quit to start again
3) increase the number of cigarettes people smoke each day
4) convince young people to start
5) portray cigarettes as something that is cool and not drug-like
Although their ad space changed in the wake of Congress’s ban via the Public Health and Smoking Act (PHSA), tobacco companies still spend billions of dollars every year working towards convincing people that tobacco is not a drug. After all, drugs are looked down upon in society, and tobacco companies stand to lose a lot of money if their consumers think of themselves as drug addicts when using their products.
An amendment in 1984 to the PHSA, which required tobacco companies to include one of four warnings on both products and advertisements, didn’t seem to diminish their spending efforts either. In 2005 (most recent numbers available), tobacco companies spent an estimated $13.4 billion in advertisements, a 94% increase since 1998.
In addition to magazines, billboards, and newspapers, tobacco companies benefit from sale advertisements posted at gas stations and other markets.
But why is it that tobacco companies need to advertise such a highly addictive substance? Some people may think that cigarettes and other tobacco products have the ability to sell themselves. Without the advertising efforts of tobacco companies, however, people may begin to recognize the similarities tobacco shares with cocaine, heroine and meth.
The current and rising health concerns have created a sort of competition for tobacco companies. They now find that they are competing among themselves for a diminishing market. Anti-smoking laws and campaigns alike have slowly but surely been replacing the tobacco advertisements that used to appear on television and radio, educating the public on the harmful and potentially lethal effects of the drug nicotine. Surely tobacco companies fear that with this growing public awareness they may not only lose customers, but the rights to advertise on all mediums.
The Truth Campaign is one of the most effective anti-smoking campaigns currently running advertisements against the use of tobacco products, and especially cigarettes. Aimed at the youth population, the Truth Campaign is a creative and thought-provoking crusade to convince younger generations that smoking is not cool.
Tobacco and the Law
Growing awareness of the harmful effects of tobacco has continually been reflected in U.S. law. Restrictions have been placed not only on tobacco advertisements, but also on the public’s use of nicotine containing products. Scientific studies have made the harmful and drug-like side effects of nicotine obvious, and lawmakers have been responding to these findings.
Aside from the age restriction, the federal government has granted states the right to regulate the use of tobacco products. The government mandates that the buying and selling age of tobacco is 18. Still, states have the right to increase or decrease this age limit, but dipping below leads to a loss of any FEMA funds. In light of this law, states like Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey, Texas and Utah have raised the buy/sell age to 19. The age law recognizes that nicotine should be treated like the drug that it is.
Further legal actions have been taken with concern for the health of both smokers and nonsmokers alike (for the latest updates, click on the map). As early as 1973, Florida became the first state to pass a law that restricted smoking in public places. Other states have since followed suit, and enacted even more public prohibitions on smoking. Effective as of 2008, California passed a law prohibiting smoking while in a car with minors present.
Smoking = Doing Drugs?
Despite evidence from scientists and the support of recent laws, tobacco’s history as a harmless social pastime has hindered its acceptance of the view that it is a drug. No one looks at their local gas station attendant and sees a drug dealer. A quick stop for gas, milk and a pack of cigs seems in no way to mirror a stop at the local crack house. Yet in both cases a drug deal has gone down.
The increasing health concerns and the actions of lawmakers have become cause for concern among tobacco companies. We believe that the next step in reducing tobacco consumption is to make the public aware that tobacco is not only harmful, but that it is a drug just like cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana. The label “drug” brings with it certain negative social connotations that may be even more effective than laws themselves. In the true nature of a drug, tobacco affects the neurobiological functions of its users, and should not be thought of as anything other than a drug.