Cigarettes, Coffee, and Chocolate: All Or None

Note: I wrote (and submitted) this paper for my college class in July, 2016.

In today’s rabidly anti-smoking society, it is relatively easy to understand how tobacco products became labeled as a ‘drug’. Any child in school can tell you all the ill-health effects of smoking, anti-smoking signs are in every pharmacy and gas station, and our doctors are harping about it constantly. But is it a drug?

According to NIDA for Teens (a government funded anti-drug website geared towards young adults), “Like cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, nicotine increases levels of a neurotransmitter called dopamine.” (emphasis added). According to The National Health Institute, nicotine is the true gateway drug (NIH, Why Nicotine Is A Gateway Drug), as opposed to marijuana. When one types in ‘tobacco’ and ‘drug’ into Google, the Wikipedia result that pops up is ‘Tobacco and Other Drugs’.

We constantly hear that –since tobacco contains nicotine, which affects the brain –it is therefore, ipso facto, a drug. No questions asked, end of story, and no –you can’t question our conclusion, quit asking!  We’re constantly bombarded with daily anti-smoking messages, studies showing how smoking is a gateway drug, smoking is horribly addictive, smoking is no different than other drugs such as heroin and cocaine, and so on.  Turn on your radio or your TV, and you’re guaranteed to find at least one commercial telling you all the above and more. Why, it’s gotten to a point where smokers are more demonized than legitimate drug users these days.

But let us examine the main premise here; namely, that nicotine is “like cocaine, heroin, and marijuana…”, because it effects chemicals in the brain. In this paper, I intend to show that –by using the broad, paint-brush strokes logic the anti-smoking crowd applies –one also has to consider coffee, energy drinks, chocolate, and even turkey must be considered to be drugs as well.

Let us start by first detailing what, exactly, smoking does to the brain. As stated above, nicotine has been proven to increase dopamine, a chemical in the brain that is responsible for pleasure. The higher your dopamine levels, the happier you are, while conversely, the lower your dopamine levels, the less happy you are. So far, so good. No one will argue these points. Let me restate that for clarity: no one denies that nicotine increases dopamine levels. That is an unarguable fact. This is the reason why smokers seem happier after (or while) smoking a cigarette.

But if that is what makes tobacco products a drug, let’s take a look at some other common things we ingest on a daily basis and see what else can then be considered a drug. Remember our rationale, according to the anti-smoking crowd: if it alters your brain chemistry, it must be a drug.

We’ve all heard the story before. The man is sitting on the couch (or sometimes sleeping), when his wife or girlfriend wakes him up (or startles him from watching TV), demanding one thing, and one thing only:

Chocolate. Now.

This often happens at three in the morning, or during a rain storm, or some other comically inconvenient time. So the man rushes out to the store (sometimes several, if it’s late at night), before finally finding and buying the chocolate. He runs home, and gives his wife her demanded treat. After eating the chocolate, she calms down, and is –once again –the happy, kind woman he fell in love with.

Jokes and stories like this are everywhere –we can’t even pinpoint the first historic version of this tale. They’re everywhere, permeated into our consciousness as simply as our phone numbers.

So how about it? Is there any real truth to this story, or is it just another story men created to get a chuckle out of women? Let’s look at the actual science to find out.

Chocolate is made from cacao, a plant that grows predominantly in Latin and South America, but in a few African nations as well. This plant is then blocked, or melted, and turned into chocolate –something that Americans consume at a rate of over 2.8 billion pounds per year, which equals out to (approximately) twenty two pounds of chocolate a person per year here in the States.

So obviously, we Americans eat a lot of chocolate. But studies done by numerous sources (including the University of Dartmouth, University of Texas, the National Center for Biotechnological Information, and numerous others) have shown that chocolate –and dark chocolate in particular –increases serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain. Serotonin, according to Medical News Today, is a neurotransmitter –similar to dopamine –that effects moods. Again, like dopamine, low levels of serotonin have been definitively linked to depression, and studies have shown that serotonin levels are responsible for mood mediation (meaning it keeps your moods level) (Medical News Today, Serotonin: Facts).

Chocolate, according to one study, contains high levels of serotonin, enough to effect brain chemistry (NCBI, 2011). Numerous studies have found that there is some veracity to the Snickers commercial where the person completely changes personalities after eating a chocolate bar. Dark chocolate contains –on average –approximately 2.9 milligrams of serotonin per gram. If we do a little bit of math (using that twenty two pounds a year number from before, and knowing that one pound is approximately 454 grams), we see that –on average –Americans consume twenty eight grams of serotonin per year, just from chocolate; that’s not considering any other sources we might get it from.

Now, yes: serotonin levels do differ from person to person. What is low for one person might be normal, or even high for another. But comparatively speaking, twenty eight grams of cocaine would be enough to net a person caught with that amount a five year mandatory prison sentence in most states, would cost you around five thousand dollars (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime),  and would be enough to get you high between 50-60 times, depending on the frequency of your use.

Using those numbers, and given what serotonin does, and how much serotonin is found in chocolates, and how much is ingested on average, we can definitely say, using the anti-smoking logic that chocolate and its derivatives must also be considered dangerous drugs. After all, it does alter your mood by process of chemical enhancement, making you happier the more you eat.

Next, let’s take a look at caffeine, another popular chemical. Found in coffee, energy drinks, and sodas, caffeine is easily one of the most popular stimulants out there. According to one Harvard University study, over fifty eight percent of all Americans drink coffee daily, and spend over forty billion –yes, that’s billion –dollars on the drink every year. With 95 milligrams of caffeine in an average size cup (about eight fluid ounces), and an average of three cups per day, that’s a whopping 285 milligrams of caffeine a day. Yearly, that amounts to about a hundred and five grams of caffeine. Using our numbers from before, it would cost you about fifty thousand dollars for cocaine, and get you high approximately five hundred times.

And again –that’s just coffee. Do you drink soda? The average can of soda contains twenty nine milligrams of caffeine per can. And according to one survey taken (Gallup.com, 2012), forty eight percent of all Americans reported drinking at least one can a day, while seven percent of those polled report drinking four or more cans a day. So that seven percent drinks 45 grams of soda per year, while the average drinks about 10 grams. That averages out to about eight pounds on average, and over thirty six pounds for seven percent of Americans.

Now, let’s discuss what caffeine actually does to the human body. Caffeine works by binding to the brain’s adenosine receptors. Adenosine, put very simply, is what makes us tired. The caffeine binds to the receptors, which keep us from getting tired. And similar to crack, the more caffeine you take, the more you need. For an avid coffee drinker, drinking three or four cups and going to bed a few hours later is nothing, while someone who drinks it rarely, or never, will drink one cup and be unable to sleep for five or six hours.

So, let’s recap what caffeine does. It affects your brain, acting as a stimulant to keep you from falling asleep. It gradually requires more and more of it to keep giving you the same effect. Sounds like the definition of amphetamines to me. According to Urban Dictionary (a popular website where people input ‘lingo’), amphetamines are drugs ‘that produce increased wakefulness and focus’.

And what about turkey? We all know how –after ‘Turkey Day’ as Thanksgiving is colloquially called –everyone is tired, and wants a nap. It’s common knowledge that turkey contains tryptophan, a chemical that makes you sleepy. The more turkey you eat, the more tired you get.

Therefore, we must also consider turkey to be a drug too!

No one will argue that cigarettes are healthy for you; no one will argue that you should smoke, that we should repeal tobacco laws, or anything like that. But we should be able to have an intelligent, rational debate about tobacco, what it does, and how it affects you. Labeling it as a drug simply because it alters your brain’s chemistry is foolish. As I’ve pointed out, there are many foods out there that alter your brain chemistry, and that list is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Plums have been proven in increase memory function, as have pomegranates. And there are hundreds more foods and chemicals we ingest on a daily basis that affect our brain –and body –chemistry.

The point I hope to have made here is that, while cigarettes are bad for you, they are not a drug, any more than coffee or chocolate, or any of the hundreds of other ‘bad’ things for us. Sugar is bad for us –that doesn’t mean that Kool-Aid is a drug. It simply means that it’s bad for us. Nothing more, nothing less.

If we would speak honestly about cigarettes –without over-exaggerating –we could, perhaps, do more to eradicate smoking. But when we start talking about them as drugs, people tune them out, and refuse to listen to their point. Imagine if I was trying to have a conversation about how dangerous lions are, and include house cats in my case as examples of dangerous felines, saying that house cats have the potential to be violent. It would be the same thing. You wouldn’t listen, because my arguments are faulty, and make no logical sense. Of course lions and cats aren’t the same thing! To include them in the same argument on the dangers of felines is stupid –there’s no nicer way to put it. But the anti-smoking crowd makes this argument every day, and no one says a word.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a factual, intelligent debate about smoking, without all the hysteria, and exaggeration?

Because let’s be honest: when was the last time you heard of a man murdering his family because he did or didn’t have a cigarette? When a mother let her child drown because she was too busy smoking to save him? When a stranger beat and raped a woman because he had just finished his smoke? When a group of kids robbed a house, assaulting the occupants –because they’d all just had a cigarette? The last time you heard of a person pulled over, because they were swerving across the middle line into oncoming traffic –because of a cigarette?

You don’t. You will never hear that. That is simple common sense. Everyone knows it. There’s no ‘referencing’ who ‘believes’ it –you can’t ‘reference’ what doesn’t exist. There are no accounts of it happening, because it’s never happened. We all instinctually know that there is a big difference between snorting a line of coke, and having a cigarette. We know that having a smoke, and sticking a needle filled with heroin in your arm are to very different processes. Smoking a cigarette and smoking a joint will never give you the same effect. One might –might –make you light-headed if you haven’t smoked in a while, while the other one literally slows your brain function.

These are clear and obvious differences. And to lump cigarettes in with other drugs, like heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and meth, just because it’s ‘bad’ for you, is an insult to human intelligence. There is no nicer way to put it.

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