Mike Siegel recently posted a blistering argument against trying to improve the health effects of cigarettes by removing the various non-tobacco ingredients. We agree with his main thesis in this, but would like to take the point one step further (and, in so doing, disagree with one of Siegel’s secondary points): Removing the tobacco from cigarettes would also do little to make them less unhealthy.
If people continued to smoke rolls of, say, ground cooking herbs or sawdust, ten to twenty times a day, day after day, the health effects would be similar to what we now see. (They would undoubtedly be somewhat higher or lower, but probably similar and it is difficult to predict what direction they would move in.) Put another way, freuquently smoking shredded plants is quite unhealthy, whereas the tobacco per se has relatively little to do with this. It is not the tobacco, it is the smoke.
Of course, if cigarettes contained only sawdust, consumption would drop to about zero, nearly eliminating the risk. But intentionally making something maximally unappealing by creating pure deadweight losses is unethical public policy — if a ban is sufficiently supported and legal, it can be enacted. If there is not support for a ban then a crypto-ban via ruining the quality of a product (e.g., by taking the flavoring out of smokeless tobacco or taking the tobacco out of cigarettes) violates core ethics of making public policy in a free pluralistic society.
Carl V. Phillips