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Alcohol & Other Drugs

Getting to the Bottom of a Burning Issue

Tobacco’s top myths and facts

Sara Perry and Nicole Pankratz

Reprinted from "Tobacco" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 3 (4), pp. 7-8

In today’s climate of confused debate over what’s more important—personal choice, profits or public health—few topics are hotter than tobacco control. Unfortunately, however, much of the confusion stems from people not knowing a lot about basic tobacco truths. To shed some light on the subject, here are some common myths and facts about a substance that has been getting policy makers, pub owners and the public fired up for years.

Myth: Smoking helps calm the nerves.

Fact: It’s true that the nicotine in cigarettes triggers the release of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that is associated with feelings of pleasure. And it’s true that for a short time a smoker may relax a little. But nicotine is a stimulant drug that raises activity in the heart and nervous system. A smoker’s system quickly becomes used to this activity and demands stimulation. When a person is nicotine dependent, not having a cigarette creates anxiety and irritability. So smoking may only work to return that person’s tension levels to normal.1 In other words, tobacco use actually appears to increase stress and put smokers at greater risk of panic disorders.2,3 In contrast, quitting has been linked to long-term drops in stress and anxiety, and improved mood.1,4

Myth: Smokers don’t become hard drug users.

Fact: While there’s much debate about whether tobacco is a “gateway” to other substance use, there’s no denying the very strong relationship between cigarette smoking and all types of drug consumption—both legal and illegal—especially among youth. Canadian smokers aged 15 to 19 appear 14 times more likely to drink alcohol, 25 times more likely to use cannabis, and 12.5 times more likely to use other illegal substances, such as cocaine, heroin, amphetamine, ecstasy and hallucinogens.5 Smokers may also be more prone to engaging in especially risky behaviours, including drinking excessively and having unprotected sex.6

Myth: Some cigarettes are healthier than others.

Fact: Nearly 60% of Canadian smokers use “light” or “mild” cigarettes, yet there’s no evidence that these products are less harmful than regular cigarettes.7 In fact, studies show that at least six types of “light” Canadian cigarettes contain higher levels of nicotine than other cigarettes.8 There’s also no link between “light” cigarettes and lower levels of health risk or cardiovascular disease.9 Still, Canadians continue to buy into what experts are calling a marketing scam. About 43% of Canadian adult smokers trust that “light” cigarettes are healthier.10 And partly because of such misinformation, smokers of “light” cigarettes are potentially 54% less likely to be attempting to quit the habit altogether.11

Myth: Second-hand smoke isn’t a big deal, and smoke-free areas don’t benefit anyone anyway.

Fact: Second-hand smoke contains the same toxins as first-hand smoke, and puts non-smokers at risk of many of the same diseases as smokers.12 According to Health Canada, more than 1,000 deaths per year may be linked to second-hand smoke.13 Some researchers say the number could be as high as 7,800.14

Reducing second-hand smoke exposure through public smoking bans not only benefits non-smokers, but also helps smokers cut down or quit smoking. In a 2005 study of worksites, smoke-free regulations were related to a drop in smoking of up to four cigarettes per day by employees.15 This same study showed that workers in non-smoking establishments were twice as likely to quit smoking as those in workplaces that allowed smoking.

Nearly 94% of British Columbians support smoke-free places, and smoke-free bars and other businesses are benefiting. In a Canadian study of 29 different reports on the costs of smoke-free legislation to businesses, there wasn’t one case in which a smoking ban caused a drop in profits. In some places, sales actually improved.16

Myth: There’s no hope for people who don’t want to quit. Even cutting back doesn’t make a difference.

Fact: Reducing the number of cigarettes a person smokes in a day won’t reduce many (if any) of their health risks, but it could help with future change. People who substantially cut down on their cigarette intake may increase their odds of eventually quitting by nearly 50%.17 Reductions in use may also be linked to fewer relapses and greater motivation to change. These effects are important, since about 80% of all smokers, and 90% of daily smokers, have no plans to quit smoking anytime soon.18 But many of them may be prepared to slow down on the number they’re smoking today, possibly leading to full cessation down the road.

Myth: It’s unfair to burden smokers with interventions like higher tobacco taxes—they don’t help anyone but the state.

Fact: Among really vulnerable groups, federal and provincial taxes on tobacco products appear to be less harmful to smokers than smoking itself. That is, the potential financial hardships associated with tax increases are probably less risky than the harms associated with smoking.19

The links between price increases on cigarettes and improved mental and physical health have been shown in study after study. Tobacco taxes seem to deter young people from starting smoking, and to prompt current smokers to give up the habit20-21—especially when accompanied by tools to help smokers quit (e.g., free cessation aids). Taxation has also been linked to lower rates of smoking among pregnant women, improved birth outcomes, and decreased rates of suicide among men. In the end, this means reduced health risks among the general population, and less second-hand smoke in both private and public places.

About the author
Sara and Nicole are both with the Communication and Resource Unit of the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research of BC. Sara is the Research Coordinator and Nicole is the Publications Officer
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