What’s your poison?

ASH Scotland
May 10 · 4 min read

Given the huge cumulative impact, Jim O’Rorke feels that the impact of smoking doesn’t get the attention of faster, but rarer, kinds of poisoning.

I read with interest today the story about actor Gary Oldman suffering from nicotine poisoning whilst making a film about Churchill (the politician not the dog). It’s reported in the Independent on-line that he smoked 400 cigars, costing £15,000, over 58 days of filming.

My first thoughts were that I could not recall ever reading a story about nicotine poisoning before. In fact if you google “nicotine poisoning in the news” there is nothing about individuals suffering nicotine poisoning apart from Mr Oldman. The rest is research or general information about the effects and symptoms of nicotine poisoning. Contrast that with “alcohol poisoning in the news” and there are lots of news stories about individuals affected and also loads of statistics about the extent of this problem. Try googling “drug overdose in the news” and the internet implodes!

So what is nicotine poisoning? How many cigarettes do you need to smoke to get it? Is it fatal? The Centre for Disease Control in the U.S. reckon that a dose of between 50mg-60mg could be fatal for someone weighing about 150lbs (that’s 68kg for anyone under the age of 50) but that some research relates that it might be higher. An average cigarette will contain around 10mg of nicotine but the body only absorbs about 10% of this, so you would have to smoke 50–60 cigarettes for some people but probably a good deal more. Also the body does build a tolerance to nicotine so you have to inhale more and more to get the same effect. If you look on-line the only deaths from nicotine poisoning I could find were from ingesting e-cigarette liquid accidently (especially young children) or in one case a suicide. Nicotine, after all, does appear on the official list of poisons in the UK.

So if we compare alcohol and other drugs to nicotine you’ll know that you could take one hit of Heroin and die, you could binge on alcohol in one sitting and die but death is unlikely to occur in one session of smoking tobacco. Yet there is no safe level of smoking tobacco. The National Cancer Institute in the U.S carried out a study which found that people who consistently smoked an average of less than one cigarette per day over their lifetimes had a 64 percent higher risk of earlier death. Those who smoked one to 10 cigarettes a day had an 87 percent greater risk. The link to lung cancer was especially high. The group that smoked less than one cigarette a day over their lifetimes had nine times as high a risk of dying from the disease than non-smokers, while those who smoked one to 10 cigarettes a day had a 12-fold increased risk.

What we have here then is that alcohol and other drugs have the potential to kill someone in one sitting when smoking tobacco is very unlikely to. An analogy could be if you chuck yourself of a 1,000foot building once, you’ll likely die; if you chuck yourself of a 20 foot building you might be okay. If you do it 20 times a day, every day it will soon tell on your health, but it will take time, so the media will never be interested in it. The fact is very few people die from nicotine poisoning but millions have died and will die from the effects of smoking tobacco; the tar, the toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke, the carbon monoxide. The World Health Organization states that 100 million people died from the effects of smoking tobacco in the 20th century and in the 21st century this could be as many as 1 BILLION. So what do you think would happen if it was predicted that one billion people would die from illicit drug use?

So what’s my point? The media reports, often sensationally, about the problems caused by alcohol and illicit drugs. Public authorities respond and invest to combat the adverse effects of alcohol and illicit drugs. I believe that there is a correlation between the two; front page headline + top of the 6 O’clock news = action to tackle the problem. So for once the adverse effects of smoking tobacco in relation to an actual person get reported, and a famous person at that, and I wonder how many people were surprised that Nicotine could poison you? What if the media in Scotland reported every day, “Another 30 People Die Today because of Smoking Tobacco”. More likely the headline would be something like, “Tobacco Terror Orphans Hundreds!” Sensational, but sadly true.

Finally, back to Churchill. A few years ago some sixth form history students were asked if they could write down a famous quote from Churchill; half the class wrote, “Oh, yuss!” True story.

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ASH Scotland

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Our vision is that everyone has the right to good health and to live free from the harm and inequality caused by smoking.