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The Tobacco Evolution

Notes from an emergency room doctor: The battle against cigarette smoking is not won. And it may be that it shall remain, forever, a stalemate. Because bad habits are hard to break.

Those of you who smoke must be tired of being harangued. You are under attack from all corners. Doctors portend your doom. Federal, state, and local governments have pushed you outdoors. And now the FDA is lobbying hard to get control over tobacco so that they can regulate it as a drug and then require tobacco companies to further limit the nicotine and tar in cigarettes. Perhaps soon, even if you can get a hold of a "drag," it won't have that "kick" anymore.

Still, nearly 50 million Americans over the age of 18 smoke. And more than 3000 teenagers become regular smokers every single day. About 24 billion packs of cigarettes are sold annually. In 1993, for each pack sold, approximately $2.06 was spent on medical care attributable to smoking. Of the $2.06, almost half was paid by public sources. These costs do not do not include the productivity and value lost with the deaths of the more than 400,000 people who die annually from diseases attributable to cigarette smoking.

But though there's an economic burden to tobacco use, it turns out there's an economic boon as well. Tobacco farmers are earning $1,000 per acre, with annual crop sales totaling about $3 billion. Annual tobacco product revenues amount to about $51 billion. And taxes on tobacco total about $12 billion, providing a major source of revenue for federal, state, and some local governments. U.S. tobacco exports also contribute $5 billion dollars to the positive side of our trade balance.

Scientists are also busy searching for new uses for tobacco, other than "lighting up."

North Carolina State University researchers are studying a gelatin-like protein, called "Fraction-1," which is found in high concentration in the tobacco plant. They hope to turn Fraction-1 into a non-allergenic infant formula or a purer food for kidney patients to help them avoid dialysis.

Because tobacco grows foreign genes so easily, many scientists think it will be useful in bioengineered medicine. Dr. Carole Cramer, a Virginia Tech plant pathologist, is using tobacco plants to produce human blood proteins that prevent clotting. Perhaps soon, tobacco "anticoagulants" will be available.

BioSource Genetics, a California Company dedicated to pharmaceutical tobacco research, is testing a tobacco antibiotic called "defensin."

Other uses for tobacco are also on the horizon. A Dutch company is using tobacco as part of successful feed for chickens. And DNA Plant Technology Corporation has patented a variety of tobacco plants that produce high levels of "sclareol," a chemical which can be used in place of animal musk in deodorants and perfumes.

Cigarette smoking still remains a vile and dangerous habit. But regardless of the common sense of the current attacks on cigarettes, I expect them to be with us for a long, long time. Those pleasure vices like cigarette smoking, and drug and alcohol use cannot be legislated away. No modern day Volstead Act or fervent admonishment from a surgeon general will stop smoking. And the economic clout of the tobacco industry will remain strong for years to come.

But do not chagrin. Let's just hope that Joe Camel and his ilk soon become cartoon anachronisms and that modern scientists find a little silver cloud in that deadly haze of tobacco smoke.