Given what we already know about gene variants that predispose some people to nicotine addiction, federal permission for the sale of tobacco products — with or without graphic warning labels — looks like a nationwide eugenics project.

Suppose there were a drug that could mildly improve alertness and focus while soothing anxiety.  Suppose some 45 million Americans took it regularly.  Now suppose this drug had some adverse side effects, including cancers, heart attacks, strokes and chronic lung disease – and was also addictive.  Suppose these side effects killed more than four hundred thousand of its users every year, in the US alone.

Should the FDA ban this drug – considering that it routinely bans drugs with side effect profiles that are utterly benign by comparison?  Or should the government allow this drug to be sold, but with warning labels?

Viewed in this way, doesn’t the recent proposal for large and graphic warnings on tobacco products seem insane?

Yes, I know, the reasons behind the federal tobacco policy are complex.  One involves Big Tobacco, its economic heft, and its reality-distortion effect on Washington.  But another involves a tremendous – and tremendously outdated – misconception, which is that people are generally capable of making rational choices about what products to buy or avoid.  For some products and for some people, that may seem true.  But the advertising industry is largely based on the assumption that it isn’t true – that people can almost always be suckered into chasing a short-term pleasure even when they are aware, at some level, that it will hurt them in the long term.  Even for young people who have not yet experienced the pleasure of a cigarette, there may be numerous opportunities for a first smoke – at parties, for example, where their resistance is lowered by alcohol and peer pressure, and cigarette pack warning labels might not even be visible.

More importantly, modern addiction research has made it clear that after a few initial smokes, some people no longer have “freedom of choice” in any meaningful sense.  About half of America’s cigarette smokers, for example, are considered “persistent smokers.”  That is a formal term given to them by nicotine researchers. These persistent smokers get hooked on nicotine with frightening ease, and find it nearly impossible to kick the habit even after a diagnosis of lung cancer, heart disease or some other smoking-related, life-threatening ailment.

Studies over the past decade have shown that these people’s extreme susceptibility comes largely from gene variants that affect the shape and sensitivity of their brain-cell receptors.  The effect is to alter the balance between the more primitive, impulsive, I-want-it-now circuits of the limbic system and the more lately evolved and judicious circuits of the prefrontal cortex, in favor of the former.  Genetic differences in addiction susceptibility are found throughout any ethnic population in the world.  They also show up between ethnic populations, as I’ve commented in an earlier post.  Native Americans, for example, appear to have gene variants that cause abnormally high rates of tobacco and alcohol dependency.

Here is my main point:  Most of these susceptible people are essentially condemned to disease and death by the permitted marketing of such an addictive, destructive product.  It is common for people who don’t like this situation to condemn the tobacco industry, but why not take aim at the enabling legislators instead?  Given what we know about tobacco’s effects and people’s susceptibilities, our tobacco laws amount to a nationwide eugenics project — a regulated plague that we know will disproportionately affect one susceptible group, impair their health and fertility, kill most of them early (on average more than a decade early), and – given enough time – force them and their susceptibilities from the gene pool.  To add insult to injury, we levy special “sin” taxes on this susceptible population.

Are our present lawmakers ruthless Social Darwinists?  If not, then why are their policies concerning tobacco – and many other potentially addictive products –maintained in defiance of modern neuroscience?  Future generations will wonder.