The word “natural” is a powerful marketing term. Consumers who see it on a package understandably assume that it suggests healthier or safer or "better for you." The term is now fueling a new trend among smokers who believe that tobacco products that are marketed as natural are safer, because they don't contain certain additives, so therefore they’re not addictive.
Not so fast.
A survey conducted among users of these tobacco products showed that 64 percent thought that a brand marked "natural" was safer than traditional tobacco products. Only eight percent felt that "natural products" were not safer. The eight percent evidently recognized that these natural cigarettes still contained tobacco, just like traditional smokes.
The author of the study, Jennifer Pearson, a research investigator at the Schroeder institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at Truth Initiative in Washington, D.C., focused on Natural American Spirit tobacco products that were marketed as both “natural and 100 percent additive-free.” Smokers are lured to either switch to these “safer” cigarettes, or to start smoking these products because they are perceived to have a safer profile than traditional cigarettes. Pearson suggests that consumers are being misled.
A leading distributor of these products is The Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company which is owned by the larger tobacco company, Reynolds American.
Many smokers believe that most of the harm caused by smoking comes from additives and chemicals that companies add to the tobacco. The truth is that cigarette smoke has chemicals resulting directly from the burning process of the tobacco leaf, regardless of whether it was grown organically or not. The health risk exposure comes after the cigarette begins to burn.
Cigarette smoke exposes the smoker to more than 700 chemicals. Some of the end products of burned tobacco include beryllium, cadmium, chromium, and benzene — all dangerous chemicals. All of these by themselves have been associated with an array of diseases, including cancer, autoimmune diseases, and other inflammatory conditions that affect parts of the body besides the lungs.
Though experts often highlight the direct impact of smoke on the lungs, the effects of cigarette smoke go far beyond the bronchial airways. The end products of tobacco smoke have effects that reach many parts of the body, with the potential to instigate systemic disease.
The harm caused by smoking also extends beyond the smoke exposure itself. According to the U.S. Department of Human Services, at least 70 of the hundreds of chemicals in cigarette smoke have been proven to be carcinogenic.
Nicotine remains the main addictive element, since it directly targets the pleasure center in the brain. This pathway is the basis for the new smoking cessation drug, Chantix. The drug binds to specific receptor sites and removes the pleasure element produced by smoking the cigarette.
Chantix needs to be prescribed with caution and is not a good choice for all patients seeking to quit smoking. There are individuals who cannot deal with the void left after the pleasure they would typically get from the cigarette is removed. Depression and other psychological disorders are risk factors associated with the use of Chantix. There is also a risk of suicidal ideation in certain patient groups.
Currently, there is still no clear understanding of the psychology of the smoker (or would-be smoker) better than the information that so-called big tobacco companies have amassed, thanks to decades of extensive testing and research on smoking. Those decades of research and development helped to finesse the perfect cigarettes – meant to lure countless consumers and, in effect, turn them into drug addicts.
The makers of cigarettes know how to target the likely users of natural cigarettes. The data suggests they are more likely to be under age 35, and Natural American Spirit cigarettes are targeting the LGBTQ community and consumers who also use marijuana.
Some other facts about today’s smokers according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
- Each day more than 3,200 people under age 18 smoke their first cigarette. Among them, 2,100 become daily smokers as adults.
- Nine out of 10 smokers start before age 18, and 98 percent start smoking by age 26.
- In 2011, an estimated 19 percent of the U.S. population were cigarette smokers.
- Approximately 18 percent of high school students are smokers.
- In 2011, nearly 18 percent of high school boys were cigar users.
- From 1964 to 2014, the proportion of adult smokers declined from 42 percent to 18 percent.
A paper on the main components of cigarette smoke was presented by the National Cancer Institute. Those identified as the most harmful chemicals: carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, nitrogen oxides, formaldehyde, acrolein, benzene and other nitrosamines. All of these are carcinogenic. Smokers inhale them in what is known as “mainstream smoke,” when they inhale forcefully through the burning tobacco column and filter tip. Non-smokers get exposed to a stream of external smoke called “side stream,” which is the smoke cloud surrounding the smoker. The dilution of side stream smoke with surrounding air affects levels of the many chemicals differently. Some of the chemicals will be greatly reduced, while others still remain quite concentrated. This also explains why secondhand smoke is so dangerous.
Smokers beware: do not be lured by terms like "natural" or "additive free." The smoke produced by these so-called natural products still contains the many dangerous chemicals commonly found in traditional cigarettes. Smoking natural cigarettes over time is dangerous to your health and will likely result in serious health concerns. There’s nothing natural about that.
Eli Hendel, M.D. is a board-certified Internist and pulmonary specialist with board certification in Sleep Medicine. He is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at Keck-University of Southern California School of Medicine, and Qualified Medical Examiner for the State of California Department of Industrial Relations. His areas of expertise in private practice include asthma, COPD, sleep disorders, obstructive sleep apnea, and occupational lung diseases.