A Philosopher's Blog

Polonium Smokes

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 9, 2011
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“With each puff, the victim inhaled polonium, unaware that her cigarette was killing her.” While this might sound like a line from a bad spy novel (no doubt featuring rogue former KGB agents), it is actually what smokers experience with each puff from a normal cigarette.  Tobacco plants pick up polonium via contamination from fertilizer which is made from phosphate rock that happens to be rich in uranium. Some of this contamination comes through absorption via the roots and some comes from contamination via the leaves.

Obviously, people will point out that the radioactive material in tobacco is not the major threat. After all, tobacco is chock full of dangerous stuff and it is generally a bad idea to inhale any smoke. That is quite correct, but it is worth noting that the polonium makes tobacco even more dangerous. It is, in fact, estimated that it causes about 2% of the smoke caused lung cancers. This means that it kills thousands of people each year.

It is tempting to simply say that people know the risks and if they prefer to harm themselves, then that is their right. Laying aside the matter of second hand smoke and the fact that smokers often become health care burdens for the rest of us, there is also the fact that tobacco could be made less dangerous by reducing or eliminating the polonium. This can actually be done without undue hardship on the part of the tobacco industry.

In fact, the industry studied the matter for quite some time and found that changing fertilizer would have a significant impact as would using a different sort of filter. Also, something as simple as washing the tobacco leaves would have a significant effect (it might also remove other contaminants). Not surprisingly, the industry decided to stay quiet about its findings and elected to not actually address the polonium problem because “removal of these materials would have no commercial advantage.”

While my natural hatred of tobacco inclines me to advocate simply outlawing it, my moral principles require me to allow people to engage in self-harm under certain conditions (such as knowing what they are doing). As such, I have to oppose an actual ban on tobacco. I can, however, consistently support bans on public smoking (you can smoke, but I do not want to share your smoke). I can also support making tobacco less dangerous to those who smoke it on the grounds that this would enable them to get their enjoyment while harming themselves less. I am assuming that people who smoke do so for the allegedly enjoyable aspects of the drug use rather than the aspects that involved cancer and death. As such, I would infer that smokers would not object to having a product that would be somewhat less likely to hurt them. If they do smoke for the harm, then they can easily find substitutes, such as burning and inhaling plastic.

Tobacco companies might object to the cost of making their product less dangerous, but it would seem odd for them to claim they have a right to poison people with radiation when they could easily remove it. To use an analogy, imagine if cell phones actually gave off cancer causing radiation that caused thousands of deaths and that this flaw could be cheaply and easily rectified. It would seem to be unacceptable for companies to refuse to do so on the grounds that they would gain “no commercial advantage” and that it would cost them a little money to kill fewer people. The same would seem to hold for tobacco.








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12 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on September 9, 2011 at 6:59 am

    I remember a few years ago, the issue of cigarettes with enhanced nicotine levels were in the news. These are actually safer, because a person needs to smoke fewer cigarettes to get his nicotine dose. Yet the tobacco companies were accused of “manipulating the nicotine content” as though this were a bad thing to do, and they were excoriated for it.

  2. magus71 said, on September 9, 2011 at 7:55 am

    Has Mike ever written a post where someone was surprised by his views on a subject?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 9, 2011 at 10:19 am

      I’m consistent.

    • WTP said, on September 9, 2011 at 7:25 pm

      No. But such is the way of ivory tower inhabitants. See Theodore Dalrymple (quote obtained via David Thompson):

      Intellectuals, like everyone else, live and work in a marketplace. In order to get noticed they must say things which have not been said before, or at least say them in a different manner. No one is likely to obtain many plaudits for the rather obvious, indeed self-evident, thought that a street robber cannot commit street robberies while he is in prison. But an intellectual who first demonstrates that the cause of an increase in street robbery is the increase in the amount of property that law-abiding pedestrians have on them as they walk in the streets is likely to be hailed, at least until the next idea comes along. Thus, while there are no penalties for being foolish, there are severe penalties (at least in career terms) for being obvious.

      What’s ironic is that in spite of their “unconventional” thinking, how predictable they are.

      • dhammett said, on September 9, 2011 at 8:46 pm

        Two articles from The Economist shedding more light on the subject of science and the ivory tower:


        “Rarely does it get much more ironic. Marc Hauser, a professor of psychology at Harvard who made his name probing the evolutionary origins of morality, is suspected of having committed the closest thing academia has to a deadly sin: cheating.”. . . . .
        “Others are less despondent, warning against conflating scientific misconduct with difficult science. One corner-cutting researcher does not impugn a whole field.” . . . . .
        “Many researchers cite Harvard’s probe as further proof of science’s self-correcting mechanisms, and praise students for doughtily standing up to an authority figure of Dr Hauser’s distinction.

        “Gerry Altmann, editor of Cognition, agrees, adding:’Although at the time it might appear that each transgression is major, its eventual impact on science is minor’.”


        “An Array of Errors” recounts a decade-and-a-half of errors and misconduct surrounding ‘research’ findings of Dr. Anil Potti,Dr. Joseph Nevins, and other researchers at Dartmouth. Their research, published in The New England Journal of Medicine “looked like a tremendous advance for personalised medicine—the idea that understanding the molecular specifics of an individual’s illness will lead to a tailored treatment.”

        The conclusion of the article: “The whole thing, then, is a mess. Who will carry the can remains to be seen. But the episode does serve as a timely reminder of one thing that is sometimes forgotten.

        “Scientists are human, too.

        • magus71 said, on September 10, 2011 at 4:14 am

          Good post. I believe many scientists endeavor to study certain areas to prove what they already believe at an *ideological level*. This goes beyond a hypothesis, which is the root of the scientific process.

          I’m very skeptical of anything that can’t be seen to occur within a couple of years at most. This is why I think certain types of engineering are the best of science. Space shuttle explodes: Someone’s calculations were wrong. Space shuttle makes it to orbit: Someone punched in the right numbers. Empiricism at its best.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 12, 2011 at 7:08 pm

          The case does, as suggested, show that the field has self-policing elements. Badly behaving academics are generally caught by other academics who become suspicious of their results, etc.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 12, 2011 at 7:06 pm

        True, academics do need to do original work. But that is also true for businesses: if you want to stand out, you just can’t sell the same old crap (unless you at least put it in a new package).

  3. Edward Carney said, on September 9, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    You say that you consistently support bans on public smoking. Does this include the New York City ban on smoking in public parks?

    I am not a smoker (though I have had a handful of cigars in my time), but I do think the efforts to restrict an otherwise legal practice have gone to far. If we are able to so thoroughly restrict people’s behavior on the basis of the health hazard it presents to others nearby, I would accept a ban on smoking in public parks if there were also a ban on driving near them, since I’m markedly more worried about the effect of car exhaust on my air quality.

    That said, I do wish that more people took your general view on the topic – promoting less harmful tobacco as part of the solution. As you said, any smoke is bad for you, but I’ve never understood why we take it for granted that tobacco smoke naturally comes with hundreds of toxic additives and contaminants when truly it doesn’t have to.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 12, 2011 at 6:57 pm

      I’m split on large scale bans like that. On the one hand, having someone smoking near me, even outside, annoys me and presumably exposes me to some miniscule health risk. On the other hand, maybe the wants of others can be used to justify my having to endure such things. For example, being around people driving cars (such as while running) puts me in much greater danger, yet that seems to be something that should be tolerated. I would, of course, prefer a world largely free of cars-but my preferences must be balanced against others. As such, I suppose that I would have to tolerate outdoor smoking (provided a smoker does not insist on intruding into my space).

      Tobacco, as you note, could be made less toxic and should be. I do accept that people have a right of self-abuse (within limits), but I am confident that most smokers would prefer to have that smokey goodness without the smokey badness.

  4. magus71 said, on September 10, 2011 at 4:09 am


    My first consideration upon reading this article is that you endorse the legalization of many types of illegal drugs.

    Sitting by a camp fire inhaling smoke assuredly results in the intake of all kinds of nasty or radioactive materials. So does inhaling cannabis smoke. The attempts by some to make cigarette smoke seem different from other smoke is a scare tactic used by zealots–just as similar tactics are used by vegetarian zealots. Yes, the pot smoking, vegetarian, anti-tobacco zealots.

    Here’s the thing: I like smoking. No–I love smoking. But unlike avoiding carbohydrates, there is real science to back the notion that smoking will reduce my life span. So I don’t do it. I’ve smoked before for a couple of months at a time. I enjoyed it. I knew there was radioactive material in the tobacco smoke.

    “With each puff, the victim inhaled polonium, unaware that her cigarette was killing her.”

    Really? Who the heck doesn’t know cigarettes are bad for health?

    It should also be pointed that small amounts of radiation exposure is associated with longer life span. This is called “radiation hormesis”. Of course, high enough doses of radiation are lethal, but within a certain span, it seems to have a stimulating effect. There are studies done that show cancer rates go down in areas that have a certain Radon gas level.


    Also, Japanese people exposed to certain amounts of radiation from The Bomb, lived quite a bit longer than those who were not exposed.


    This is counter-intuitive so few will believe it. But the science is there. Of course, we need not needlessly expose ourselves to low-dose radiation, though I myself try to get 15 minutes of sun on my face whenever I can. The zealots avoid the sun at all costs.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 12, 2011 at 7:17 pm

      Yes, people know that tobacco is bad. However, if they can make it less bad for little cost, then that seems a fair thing to ask of the tobacco companies.

      If I argue that tobacco and alcohol are acceptable, consistency requires that I allow that other such substances are also acceptable. Pointing to the legality does not really impact the moral issue (other than regards to the ethics of breaking the law-and there is the question of whether they should be illegal or not).

      It could be argued that other drugs differ in relevant ways from tobacco and alcohol: perhaps they do more damage when consumed. If so, they could be regarded as unacceptable because the harm level exceeds the moral threshold. This, of course, requires arguing for limits on the individual’s right to self-harm. But, if it is acceptable for people to consume substances that cause severe health problems and impair them to the point at which they can be a danger to others, then it seems hard to justify treating other drugs differently. This seems to be a matter of consistency. True, people are taught to accept booze and smokes while they are supposed to loath pot and coke, but that would seem to mainly be a matter of prejudice (after all, the history of drug laws shows a strong connection to racism).

      I am, of course, of the opinion that self-abuse is fundamentally irrational and is a moral harm. However, I do accept that people have a basic right to self-abuse. It is a part of liberty. A stupid part, but people are free to be stupid.

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