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It Might Not Be The Tobacco Causing all the Cancer

PoloniumThe mechanisms by which chemical carcinogens induce cancer have been well established.  But, what if we could make smoking safer?  Would it be a worthwhile goal?  As a society should we work on a zero tolerance policy or, instead, pursue a harm reduction strategy? 

Smoking is a dirty habit and there's no doubt that it's bad for you.  However, despite popular conception, all those chemical carcinogens in tobacco smoke aren't responsible for many smoking-induced lung cancers.  This isn't a  conspiracy theory.  Public health officials, the tobacco industry, and informed doctors know it to be true.

Many researchers believe that a significant cause of lung cancer in smokers is from insoluble radioactive dust which sticks to the tobacco leaves when the fields are fertilized, is inhaled during smoking, and lodges (often permanently) in the lungs.  Once these particles find their home in your aveoli and bronchial bifurcations, they decay, eliciting radiation burns to the surrounding tissue.  Like any burn, inflammation follows. This attracts more radioactive and carcinogenic particulates to the area, concentrating the toxins. Eventually the genetic damage leads to cancer.

So, what's the source of all this radioactive dust?  Superphosphate fertilizer added to the fields by growers.

The Story So Far

In 1930, lung cancer was much less common (4 cases per 100,000 population per year).  By 1980, it was the number one cancer killer (72 cases per 100,000 population per year) in spite of an almost 20 percent reduction in smoking. During this period, the levels of radioactive material in American tobacco had tripled.

Why would the tobacco industry use a radioactive fertilizer on their crops?  Simple economics.  Documents released during the state's tobacco settlements indicated that cigarette makers were aware of the problem as early as 1966 (Lorillard Tobacco).  A memo from Phillip Morris in 1975 discusses the issue as an ongoing concern.

Organic tobacco uses a different, uncontaminated fertilizer and thus avoids the problem.  Organic brands used to claim they were healthier for you.  They're not allowed to do that anymore but they are far less likely to kill you, and the government knows it. 

Tobacco consumption (and nicotine addiction) substantially increase the risk for other diseases (emphysema, heart attack, stroke, pneumonia, bronchitis, and asthma).  Only about half of the deaths attributable to smoking are from cancers.  Public health officials and anti-tobacco lobbyists figured, "why make things complicated?".  Just give people the bottom line: Stop Smoking.  Phillip Morris is legally forced to repeat this in its public service ads "There's no such thing as a safer cigarette".

But, is there no such thing?  How many lives would a safer cigarette spare?

A Safer Cigarette

In this country we spend money to reduce the risk of death from all sorts of things.  The addition of seatbelts to school buses is costing taxpayers around $1 billion.  Net benefit: 11 lives saved per year on average.  What would be the taxpayer's cost to force tobacco companies to remove radioactive materials from cigarettes?  $0.  How many lives could be saved in the USA over the next twenty years?

It's a complex problem and depending on your initial assumptions, you could end up with a wide range of answers.  If polonium induced cancer is avoided, what's to say the subject wouldn't die from a pneumonia exacerbated by COPD?  Of course, you also should consider that the subject might have lived an extra five years before COPD set in, and another six years before complications claimed their lives.  How can we include the economics and quality of life issues for people who would have gotten lung cancer and then, through expensive medical treatment, survived?

In the USA, in 2003, roughly 171,900 people developed lung cancer and 157,200 died from the disease.  Best estimates from the American Cancer Society (ACS) allow that 82% of these cancers are caused by smoking tobacco.  Surgeon General C. Everett Koop stated that "90% of smoking related lung cancers are caused by radiation".  This means that in 2003, approximately 116,000 Americans would not have died from lung cancer if cigarettes had had their radioactive content removed.  Globally, perhaps 1 million lives would be spared each year.

In addition to the cancer risk to the lungs, polonium-210, the primary radioactive component of tobacco smoke, can become soluble and be circulated throughout the body to every tissue and cell. Chemical testing will find the element in the bones, organs, blood and urine of smokers. This circulating radioactive material has the potential to cause genetic damage and may instigate diseases such as liver and bladder cancer, leukemia, and cirrhosis of liver.  More research needs to be done in these areas.

Take a pessimist's view of these napkin statistics and imagine that the percentage of lung cancer deaths induced by radioactive material is 1% instead of 90%.  To remove this material would still save 1,289 lives in 2003.  Make it 0.1%.  You still save 128 lives each year.  Do you remember the cost to add seatbelts to schoolbuses?

Keep in mind that the initial savings would be small.  A man who has smoked for fifty years would only start smoking non-radioactive tobacco tomorrow.  There is still fifty years of radiation damage inside him.  But, with each passing year, the toll from death and disease will drop.

Since anti-smoking advocates have no qualms about increasing the cost of cigarettes (usually through revenue generating taxes), why not allow tobacco firms to pass these costs directly to the consumer?  Considering the extensive research done on this subject already, why has the National Institutes of Health (NIH) not funded investigation into this area?

Postscript: The Drug War

There is another plant who's leaves are dried and then smoked: marijuana.  Despite desperate attempts  by the anti-drug forces in government and its political lobby to prove that marijuana smoke is a carcinogen, evidence is severely lacking.  Until recently, marijuana was not grown using superphosphate fertilizers and marijuana lacks the sticky hairs found on the underside of the tobacco leaf where radioactive particles accumulate.

Marijuana smoke does contain many of the same chemical carcinogens as tobacco.  Although it is difficult to compare tobacco and marijuana users in an apples to apples fashion, the absence of observed carcinogenic effects seems difficult to reconcile if the chemical carcinogen model (aka 'tar') is 100% complete.

October 25, 2004 in Politics | Permalink