Smoking does have its benefits

By on November 13, 2003

“Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs.” -William Shakespeare

With the recent restaurant smoking ban imposed in Connecticut this October, I began to wonder: with all the fuss about second-hand smoke, could there possibly be any health benefits to smoking? I initially began this inquiry as a joke-it turned out to be anything but. Richard Klein wrote in his book, “Cigarettes are Sublime,” that cigarettes are “in multiple respects contradictorily double, they both raise the pulse and lower it, they calm as well as excite, they are the occasion for reverie and a tool of concentration, they are superficial and profound, soldier and Gypsy, hateful and delicious.” Therein lies the paradox.

Smoking apparently has some beneficial effects on neurological disease and a cornucopia of other ailments. Nicotine has shown “protective effects” for stunting tuberculosis growth and for the prevention of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, ulcerative colitis, preeclampsia, Goucher’s disease, endometrial cancer, oesophageal cancer, breast cancer, Helicobacter pylori infection, papillary thyroid cancer in women, periodontal disease, schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, depression, postoperative deep vein thrombosis, rare forms of skin cancer, cocaine addiction and hypertension and postpartum hemorrhaging in pregnancy.

Smoking aids schizophrenics because it facilitates brain receptors to moreefficiently filter information. Jean-Sebastien Brunet, author in the Journal of National Cancer Institute, found that “the incidence of breast cancer was 54 percent lower among heavy smokers than nonsmokers.” In 1991 a medical journal, the British Journal of Addiction, published an article called the “Beneficial Effects of Nicotine.” In this article, many of the drug’s positive health effects were evaluated when “chronically taken”:

1. positive reinforcement (makes you feel good)

2. negative reinforcement (it may keep you from feeling bad)

3. reduction of body weight (by reducing appetite and increasing metabolic rate)

4. enhancement of performance, and protection against:

5. Parkinson’s disease,

6. Tourette’s disease,

7. Alzheimer’s disease,

8. ulcerative colitis, and

9. sleep apnea.

Those who suffer from the inflammatory bowel disease of ulcerative colitis might find a cure because nicotine has “immuno-suppressant properties,” according to William Sandborn, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic. However, Crohn’s disease, with very similar symptoms (i.e., bloody diarrhea), seems to occur only in smokers.

The International Journal of Epidemiology reported in 1991 that a “statistically significant inverse association between smoking and Alzheimer’s disease was observed at all levels of analysis, with a trend towards decreasing risk with increasing consumption.” One theory is that nicotine enhances the response to a brain chemical called acetylcholine. Some scientists are skeptical and feel that the only reason smoking delays the onset of Alzheimer’s is because the patients die of smoking-related diseases first.

Studies have also shown its impact on the enhancement of mental acuity-aiding memory, learning and attention. Nicotine has been proven to strengthen the communications between neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls the functions of learning and memory.

A study from Surrey University, published in Psychopharmacology in 1998, concluded that “smokers were subsequently able to perform various tests of reaction, memory recall and other related tasks consistently better than the non-smokers.” A similar study, published in Clinics in Chest Medicine, found that: “Improvement in attention, learning, reaction time and problem solving have been reported different processes, including attention, stimulus evaluation and response selection, appear to be involved in the effect of nicotine on human information processing.” One obvious criticism might be that there are more effective (read: healthier) ways to obtain nicotine than through smoking cigarettes.

Nicotine tends to act as an anti-depressant, and the reason for this might be that even trace amounts of the substance inhibits an enzyme that breaks down dopamine. Dopamine is the pleasure-giving substance in the brain and its shortages affect not only depressives, but also patients stricken with Parkinson’s disease. Smoking provides a relief because nicotine is believed to protect injured neurons and brain cells needed to fight the neurodegenerative disease. Also, cigarettes are shown to boost “DHEA,” a sex hormone that increases libido and helps maintain optimal weight.T There is also a Virginia research study team using tobacco plants to develop a vaccine for HIV.

Richard Klein goes on further to note that in “the present climate, the discursive performance of smoking has become a form of obscenity, just as obscenity has become an issue of public health. Since smoking is wordless, it is a form of expression especially vulnerable to being suppressed by censors who hesitate before banning free speech.” If the noxious effects of smoking are well known, why cannot its benefits also be disclosed? Despite bold warnings that scream out from every packet of cigarettes, smokers continue to light up.

This is not because they think they can beat Alzheimer’s, but rather, they subscribe to a sublime form of guilty pleasure. As Jacques Derrida writes, there is in smoking a “pleasure of which nothing remains, a pleasure even the external signs of which are dissipated without leaving a trace: in smoke.”

We cannot allow research contrary to popular opinion to so stealthily fade into the ether.


About S. Flavius Mercurius