A Two-Cigarette Society

When it comes to the health of our children, two cigarettes may be better than one. Young smokers who begin their habit with nicotine-laden cigarettes need a cigarette that will not leave them to later fight the ravages of addiction.

Experts tell us that teenagers often begin smoking to copy their peers and others whom they see smoking. As adults, however, they continue smoking largely because of the addictive qualities of nicotine. (Ninety percent of smokers regret having begun smoking and most make efforts to stop.) This means that in the absence of addictive levels of nicotine in their cigarettes, most young smokers would ultimately quit.

A two-cigarette strategy would prohibit young smokers from buying addictive cigarettes. The tobacco industry is capable of producing cigarettes that are virtually free of nicotine, and regulators could develop clear standards for non-addictive cigarettes. (Disclosure: My law firm represents tobacco companies, but I have recused myself from that work.)

The age to purchase addictive cigarettes might be set at 21. Better yet, sales of addictive cigarettes could be restricted to individuals born 19 or more years before the two-cigarette strategy was put into effect. Under this approach, 18-year-olds who start smoking non-addictive cigarettes would be prohibited from switching to addictive cigarettes even after they turned 21. In addition, a higher federal excise tax on addictive cigarettes than on non-addictive cigarettes would create a financial incentive for smokers of all ages, including scofflaw adolescents, to select non-addictive cigarettes.

Granted, a two-cigarette policy would not be a panacea. It would not end smoking, it would not give us safer cigarettes, and it would not undo the addiction that grips the current generation of smokers.

The Institute of Medicine, a unit of the National Academy of Sciences, has called for a gradual reduction of the nicotine content in all cigarettes to non-addictive levels (an approach I proposed 13 years ago when I worked at the Food and Drug Administration). But it would take decades to eliminate addictive cigarettes from the market. While a worthy strategy for eliminating addiction many years from now, a gradual approach would still permit the addiction of the next generation of smokers.

Decades of addiction will mean disease and death for millions of our children. If we can prevent addiction at the outset, we shouldn’t waste another day.

David G. Adams, a lawyer andthe director of the policy staff at the Food and Drug Administration from 1992 to 1994.