As we all hopefully emerge from the COVID catastrophe, the massive loss of life, the extraordinary disruptions of our lives, it may sound odd to refer to something worse than COVID.
What could it be?
Here is a hint. The devastation of COVID was driven by a virus and our human responses to it. This worse thing is driven by a plant, and our human responses to it.
What plant is causing more devastation than COVID, now and for many years?
Some more hints
- This plant causes most of its devastation when burned
- The deadly chemicals released are not what draws people to this plant
- What draws people to this plant kills almost no one
I bet many of you know the plant, so I’ll share the giveaway hint, it’s Latin name is Nicotania tabacum.
If at any point you guessed the plant was the tobacco plant, you were right!
We all know that smoking tobacco is deadly, but a recent review reminds us of just what a major killer it is.
Some Tobacco Plant Basics
The tobacco plant belongs to a family of plants, many of which are very familiar and yummy. The family is called the nightshade family because all the plants in this group contain poisons. Nightshade is the namesake plant of this family, and its level of poison is deadly, and has been used to brew poisons for thousands of years.
But there are also members of the nightshade plant that are safe to eat, even great to eat. These include potatoes and tomatoes, peppers and chilis, and even eggplant. All petunias are members of the nightshade family too. The nightshade family is huge, including over 2,700 species of plants.
It is one of those species, Nicotania tabacum that kills more than COVID, really more than almost any other single item, every year. This plant first was planted and used in South American as noted above, but now is used across the world.
How Tobacco Hurts
People began to smoke tobacco in the Americas, but once the Spanish used it, it went viral and has been used across humanity ever since.
The key to the mass death that tobacco delivers is the two-part delivery of harm.
The first punch comes from nicotine, which is one of the most addictive chemicals known to humanity. Consider the chance a person will end up stuck in addiction after using a substance a few times. Let’s consider four- alcohol, cocaine, heroin and nicotine.
Most students will have exposures, many very heavy and frequent exposures, to alcohol, so what per cent get hooked, discover they have alcoholism? The answer is 10%.
Not so many dabble in cocaine and crack, but of those that do, what percentage end up addicted? The answer is 10%
Now how about heroin. We know from the mass exposure of troops in Vietnam to heroin just what percent ended up deeply addicted to heroin. Is it more than 10%? No. The answer here to is 10%.
And so we now come to nicotine. If 100 kids try a few cigarettes, how many will be stuck desperate to quit but unable due to the unusual severity of nicotine addiction. You might think it’s 10%, but no, it is 33%. Nicotine is so extremely addictive that the most successful anti-addiction program in history, Alcoholics Anonymous, never asks those trying to stop using alcohol to stop using nicotine, because the addiction of nicotine’s grip on a mind is vastly stronger than alcohol. Three times more likely to get addicted and many more times likely to stay addicted, this is the first hazard tobacco throws at those who dare to use it.
Once the tobacco plant has you tied tightly to its use, it is the second punch that kills. When you burn the tobacco leaf, it releases chemicals that cause cancer, damage the heart, and ruin the lungs. And this is how it kills, by causing deadly cancers and by destroying organs necessary for life.
What a combination! Most highly poisonous plants are not addictive, so no one eats or smokes them. But the tobacco plant is very pleasing, and its nicotine becomes necessary for our minds to function with any ease, so its poisons get delivered to billions of us every day.
The Scale of the Devastation
In this recent review, the scale of the devastation was laid out for all to see: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2788777
Here are the key facts, they are simply stunning:
- Smoking kills 8 million people every year. COVID has killed 5.8 million people across the world, over a 2 year period. Tobacco kills over 2 and half times as many people as COVID, every, every year!
- 1/3-1/2 of all smokers will be killed by the tobacco they smoke. Imagine any other substance that kills as many as half of all people who use them. I cannot. Tobacco rules as the deadliest substance, and one of the deadliest habits of any sort of all humanity
- Tobacco is so deadly that on average it takes away 10 years of a smoker’s life. We only live, if lucky, about 80 years. Here is a thing that kills us only 7 of the 8 decades we might be lucky to have.
- Tobacco causes about 1/3 of all human cancer. Just think about all the effort humanity exerts to prevent and cure cancer. We change our diets, we exercise, we screen. We research breakthroughs to cure. But if humanity stopped planting the tobacco plant, fully a third of all human cancer would cease to happen.
- Tobacco causes 90% of all lung cancer
- Tobacco causes 80% of all deaths from emphysema and chronic bronchitis
- Tobacco causes a tremendous range of cancers, not just lung. They include cancer of the throat, larynx, esophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas, bladder, cervix, colon, and leukemia!
- The vast majority of deaths from tobacco come from just 3 attacks: cancer, heart disease, or lung disease.
The Who of Smoking
The two key groups that define the mass death of tobacco are the young and the poor, and each for powerful and quite different reasons.
The Youth- A Story of When You can Be Fooled
One enduring fact about smoking is that almost all smokers start their addiction before age 18. That means if you can get through 17 years of life without smoking, you likely never will. The number is actually staggering, 90% of all smokers start before they turn 18!
The Poor – The Core of Tobacco Addiction
In the United States and across the world, the highest rates of smoking are seen in the poorest neighborhoods, amongst the groups that are designated to be poor.
Out of the world’s 7 billion people, about 1.3 billion smoke. And 80% of them are in low and middle-income nations. In the US, the groups most likely to smoke tobacco are the poor, those with other addictions, those with HIV, the LGBTQ+ communities, and those with mental health disabilities. The main color gap comes not in chance of smoking but chance of dying from smoking. Black Americans suffer more death from tobacco than any other ethnic or racial group in America.
One Even More Deadly Habit in America
For many years, tobacco led the list of preventable causes of death in the United States. Every year, from all causes, about 3.38 million Americans die every year.
And of that 3.38 million, 500,000 are killed by tobacco every year. That means 14.8% or about 1 in 7 deaths in the US are from tobacco. It makes sense that something that is the cause of 500,000 deaths a year would be the #1 killer, and so it was.
Until just a few years ago, when something else overtook tobacco as the cause of more death than any other single cause. Where tobacco is a poison that brings no surprise to its harms, the new #1 cause of Americans dying is also something essential to life, the opposite of a poison.
The new #1 is food, the overfeeding of us, the choices of junk instead of real food. This new #1 killer is worthy of another post, but even with junk food surpassing tobacco, tobacco still remains a stunning source of suffering, harm, and death, all really tracing back to our mutual decision to grow this poisonous plant to reap deadly wealth.
- As we struggle with the devastation that sweeps the world, the COVID pandemic is a killer of the last 2 years and an uncertain number of years ahead, hopefully not much longer.
- But for many years before COVID and for many years after, tobacco has killed far more people than COVID.
- Tobacco is uniquely suited to be one of humanity’s great killers. It combines unmatched power to addict with unmatched ability to kill.
- The addiction is delivered by one of the most addictive chemicals known to the human brain- tobacco- which addicts 33% of all who sample it. The addiction to nicotine is very tight, very hard to break. Smoke tobacco, and you have a good chance of being tightly hooked for life.
- Once bound to tobacco by nicotine, smoking the tobacco leaf releases chemicals that cause 1/3 of all human cancer, destroy hearts, and ruin lungs. Together the rise of cancer, heart disease, and lung disease very effectively kills 500,000 Americans, every year!
- If you can avoid sampling tobacco or nicotine through age 17, you have an excellent chance of never smoking. It is striking that people 18 years and older almost never start smoking, a clear indication that the deadly reality of tobacco destroys interest in trying it out once your brain has developed to the 18 year old level.
- Tobacco, its nicotine lure and deadly brew, afflict mainly populations designated as less desirable by majorities across the world- poor nations, poor neighborhoods, communities of difference, and those with disabling mental health issues.
There appears to be no reason to grow the tobacco plant other than to get rich. The price we all pay for the accumulated wealth is the killing of 8 million people every year. It remains a grievous failure of the human imagination not to care about so many millions killed. If we did, we would stop the growing of tobacco, and find some other relief for the troubles of our very human minds.
To your health,
Dr. Arthur Lavin