Something really weird happens when journalists write stories about nicotine; even when they are reporting on research specifically about nicotine, somehow the end story will be about smoking. Yet smoking lit tobacco and ingesting nicotine are quite different.
The latest research to fall victim to this media metamorphosis was about laboratory mice drinking water which contained pure nicotine, and at the largest doses appeared to show a neuro-protective effect. These laboratory mice were not being forced to smoke tiny lit cigarettes because if they had then the researchers (as well as developing a cigarette tiny enough for a mouse to smoke and then to hold without benefit of opposable thumbs or a reason for inhaling lit tobacco) would have had to allow for the presence of over 7000 chemicals, at least 69 of which are known to cause cancer. Also, to be like real cigarettes, the researchers would have had to find a way to make their tiny mouse cigarettes contain ammonia so they could freebase the nicotine, and maybe they didn’t want to do that because they knew their laboratory mice would end up spending their hard-earned mouse money on a product engineered to be lethally addictive. Anyway, despite the fact that no smoking, or even tobacco at all, was involved at any stage in this research, the main take home message reported in the press was that smoking might prevent dementia.
This isn’t just careless reporting though, it’s a potentially damaging public health message, because smoking actually increases the risk of developing dementia. The World Health Organization in collaboration with Alzheimer’s Disease International says that smokers have a 45% higher risk of developing all forms of dementia than non-smokers, and that 14% of Alzheimer’s disease cases worldwide are estimated to be linked to smoking. The association between smoking (and other lifestyle factors) and an increased risk of dementia, is sufficient that there is now a very real need to develop preventive population strategies similar to those already in place for cancer and heart disease. It would also be helpful to get rid of the lingering confusion about smoking having a protective effect.
One question remains: is it too early to start adding nicotine to journalists’ drinking water?