Cigarettes: The Real Gateway Drug

In an effort to fan the flames of the healthy comment thread going at this morning’s Michael Phelps post, here, a retread that’s as true now as it was when I first posted it.

The director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and one of the U.S.’s leading addiction researchers, Nora Volkow [she's also Leon Trotsky's great-granddaughter], was interviewed on Fresh Air the other day a couple years ago. She says studies show that marijuana is no gateway drug:

GROSS: So, you know, a lot of people say, `Well, marijuana is a gateway drug.’ Do you see it differently? Do you think, like, for somebody who’s prone to using drugs, who has that kind of like, you know, the right kind of dopamine receptors and genetics and everything, that for them getting started on marijuana might lead to other drugs, but it’s not something inherent about marijuana as a gateway drug?

Dr. VOLKOW: Well, I would put it differently. I would basically bring forward that two are possible, and also I would like to take one step behind and say, before marijuana, what studies have shown that appears preceding marijuana is nicotine. So actually very early experimentation with cigarettes increases the likelihood that then you will experiment with marijuana and that then you will experiment with other drugs. So it’s not just the concept of marijuana being the gateway drug, but the possibility that early exposure to certain drugs, and what are the drugs that young people are more likely to get access if you’re a child? They’re much more likely to get cigarettes than it is to get marijuana.

We’re trying to understand actually whether, indeed, in a person that may not have the genetic vulnerability, that, because of an environment that’s very permissive, they get access to cigarettes, and they smoke. Would that in and of itself increase the risk of taking other drugs, or is it that they have the genetic vulnerability that made them want to experiment very early on?

Emphasis mine. Though I might just as well have emphasized the genetic predisposition.

The hypocrisy of our drug war is that it actually sanctions two — alcohol and cigarettes — and those two are not even the least harmful. These policies send mixed signals. Zero tolerance, for example, knocks away any pretense to “social drinking;” its dirty underbelly is that it makes all drinking about the high! Why go for moderation when even one is too much?

My workplace is considering harsh new smoking restrictions. I quit smoking a long, long time ago. Still, I just may vote against it.

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  • DLS

    Clean air is a good idea, though. Highly desireable.

    With cigarettes and alcohol, laying aside what levels may trigger evasion, we can tax it if we want to exploit it or to reduce its use. The level of taxes that makes sense as a minimum (and probably left there) is that which recovers the other costs (including externalities) associated with the use of the substance in question. Assuming a higher level is possible without triggering evasion, and assuming some might have an interest in knowing the answer to the question, the effect of price increases (through the taxes) on use reduction (quantifying the effect) can be obtained empirically.

    That leads me to remark on a tangential matter. If Obama wanted to be serious, he'd tax tobacco and alcohol much more than is now the case, if he was interested in reducing harm to people's health (which is not limited solely to individual consumers). However, for Obama and his administration to be consistent, he would have to engage in “cap and trade,” the same game to be sought not for real (serious) air pollution but to control “greenhouse gas” emissions and exert control over people and industry thereby. For Obama to be consistent, he would not impose or raise taxes on cigarettes, but would play “cap and trade” and give various tobacco companies special quotas of production they could meet, Soviet-style.

  • nerdovision

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  • DLS

    It has no place in the stimulus package, but the cradle-to-grave Dems in Washington (and their current pathetic GOP imitators) should consider funding for cessation assistance in a future effort, if they feel so inclined. To me it's overreach from Washington, but if that is what so many want, we may as well be constructive about it.