Monday, December 27, 2010

The glow of cigarettes

Since I quit smoking seven or eight years ago, I've tried not to turn into one of those post-smoker fanatics, pounding on tables and proclaiming: "Tobacco is the Devil and cigarette-company executives are his minions!"

It's been tough, however, given the revelations that keep popping up about what those executives knew, when they knew it, and how little they gave a damn.

For example, I just learned (from an article in the current Scientific American) that each of the almost six trillion cigarettes smoked each year contains a small amount of the uranium isotope polonium 210 (mostly from the phosphate rock from which fertilizer is made). It adds up to the equivalent radiation dosage of 300 chest x-rays a year for a person who smokes a pack and a half a day.

Polonium isn't the worst carcinogen in tobacco smoke, but it no doubt kills thousands of smokers a year. The tobacco industry has known about it for decades, and has come up with a variety of methods that could virtually eliminate the danger. But it was decided that "Removal of these materials would have no commercial advantage."

Grr. I'm looking around for a table to pound. But here is some good news. In June, 2009, President Obama signed into law an act that for the first time brings tobacco under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration. Requiring the industry to remove radiation from its tobacco products sounds like an obvious place to start.

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