Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Smoking Ammonia

The new tobacco labeling rules will forever change the way Americans look at cigarettes.

Right now, people think of cigarettes as being made from tobacco. And that is reason enough for a person not to have them. But starting in December 2010, cigarette packages will list the ingredients of cigarettes. And tobacco will be just the preamble to a list of chemicals that may include such things as ammonia.

Of course, I don’t know what the ingredients will be. Cigarette ingredients are a closely guarded secret, not even widely known in the factories where the cigarettes are made. I mention ammonia because it is a harmful, pharmacologically active artificial chemical that scientists have found by analyzing the finished product. But whatever the specifics, the lists of ingredients will surprise smokers who have been trained to think of cigarettes as being made of tobacco. I am sure that some lifelong smokers will read what they have been smoking all these years and suddenly feel very queasy.

A simple change in a label can lead to a quick, permanent change in consumer behavior. It has happened before.

At one time, granola bars were almost as big as breakfast cereal. Then the labeling rules changed, and the FDA required food packaging to prominently show macronutrients, including fat content. Granola bars are loaded with fat, and after people saw how much fat it was, sales of granola bars fell by 90 percent in less than two years. They went from taking up half the cereal aisle to fitting on one shelf in the back.

Something similar happened about three years ago when trans fats got more prominent label mentions. In what is left of the granola bar category, the products had to be reformulated to be made without trans fats. Why? Trans fats are artificial chemicals, the product of a chemical factory, that are of no benefit whatever to the person who consumes them and are known to take apart the body’s cells one by one. Hardly anyone would intentionally buy a granola bar, which is supposed to based on plants, when dangerous artificial chemicals are a featured ingredient. There will be some of the same reaction when people see the list of dangerous artificial chemicals that cigarettes contain. No one should imagine just because cigarettes are addictive that the same thing cannot happen with cigarettes.

Smokers are already self-conscious. When you see a person smoking outside an office building, the person knows you are seeing a victim of the commercial system engaging in a disturbing pattern of self-harm. It’s such a troubling picture that the smoker would rather not have anyone notice them. And that’s now, while they can pretend they are just smoking tobacco.

You can sort of try to explain tobacco as a plant fiber with some kind of history. But if everyone knows you are smoking ammonia? Taking time out, and spending your hard-earned money, to put the output of a chemical factory into your lungs?

When people know the ingredients in cigarettes, there will be no pride in smoking left at all. Even the most dedicated smokers will have to sense that the world sees them, and their chemical habit, in a bad light.

And the list of ingredients is just one of several labeling changes. The cigarettes themselves may not visibly change, but the packs and cartons will look entirely different, and the way people see cigarettes will be changed in a big way. Will cigarettes fall off 90 percent in two years, the way granola bars did? Not likely — cigarettes are addictive, after all. But will most cigarette smokers keep smoking the way they had been, as if nothing had happened? Not a chance.