That title may seem like an oxymoron, but before writing this, I rolled up and smoked some natural, additive-free tobacco in a leaf of organic hemp rolling paper, without using a filter. The point of this piece is not to condemn nor condone the activity of tobacco smoking, but in the spirit of harm reduction, it is to explain why, other than using a pipe, this is the most sensible, cost-efficient, environmentally friendly, and least noxious method possible.
Tobacco, mostly the species Nicotiana tabacum and its South American cousin N. rustica, has been cultivated for millennia by a variety of indigenous cultures in the Americas for a variety of purposes in a variety of preparations, some recreational but mostly medicinal and ceremonial. Not all preparations are smoked. It is important to note that, in many traditional uses, tobacco smoke is not inhaled, and it is smoked far more sparingly than the cigarettes of modern times. There is virtually no evidence of the frequency of tobacco related disease among Native American cultures in medical literature, but with this historical knowledge combined with modern medical understanding, an educated guess can be made that it occurred far less frequently than it does today.
When tobacco became mass-produced and marketed through its exposure to Western industrialized culture, lung cancer and other health problems due to heavy tobacco use became a cultural epidemic. Today, tobacco production, distribution, and consumption is mostly controlled by a few major companies, and the cigarettes they mass-produce often contain hundreds of additives, chemicals, fillers, and preservatives in order to maximize profit. Consequently, addiction and other disastrous health effects occur in consumers.
Nicotine molecules exist in two forms: acid (bound) and base (free). Free nicotine molecules vaporize and are absorbed into the lungs more easily than bound nicotine molecules. Cigarette manufacturers discovered that ammonia, a toxic gas normally used in cleaning products and fertilizers, has the ability to “freebase” nicotine in tobacco and make it more potent, much like cocaine is potentiated into crack by a similar chemical process. This essentially increases the addictive potential of commercial cigarettes by making them more toxic, and is but one of hundreds of other extremely harmful chemicals that serve similar purposes.
I neither condemn nor condone the consumption of tobacco, but if you’re going to smoke, I’d strongly suggest finding sources of natural, unprocessed tobacco to roll on your own. Not using filters in this process is also important because the negligible benefit they provide to smokers is outweighed by their disastrous environmental impact.
About 5.6 trillion cigarette butts are dumped into the global environment every year, and they are reported to comprise up to 50% of all collected litter items from roads and streets. These filters also get the “butt” of all the toxic chemicals contained in the processed tobacco – they absorb these chemicals during smoking and leach them back out into the environment after they are disposed. The butts themselves can also take up to 10 years to completely biodegrade, depending on the environmental conditions.
Cigarette filters are designed to absorb a lot of the tar in cigarettes, in addition to other toxins, but also absorb much of the nicotine and fail to absorb a variety of other toxic chemicals such as carbon monoxide. The decreased amount of available nicotine for smokers of filtered cigarettes creates the need to inhale more smoke in order to get the same dose. Research has shown that using a filter reduces the risk of one type of lung cancer (squamous cell carcinoma), but that it increases the risk of another type of lung cancer (adenocarcinoma). This is because smokers of filtered cigarettes tend to take deeper and more frequent inhalations in order to get the same amount of nicotine, while smokers of unfiltered cigarettes conversely tend to take fewer and shallower inhalations. Therefore, I recommend that filters not be used because their harms outweigh their benefits, and tobacco smoke is carcinogenic no matter how it is inhaled.
The plant that Native American tribes of North and South America consider to be most sacred has now been commodified in a way that has wreaked unprecedented havoc on their ancestral land and all living things that inhabit it. I would like to see a future in which any tobacco consumption is done consciously, in moderation, in the least harmful way possible for people and the environment, and with a knowledge of the plant’s ethnobotanical history. Learning about how tobacco has been used by other cultures for thousands of years, much longer than the tobacco industry and the resulting health problems have existed, provides a deeper understanding of the plant that transcends its conceptualization as a mass-produced, addictive, and dangerous vice.
I implore all smokers reading this to look into better sources for their tobacco, to take their consumption out of the hands of businesses that profit off of their health problems, and to do their best not to contribute to the destruction of our environment. I’m not saying that tobacco smoking is healthy, but I can confidently say that, should you decide to do it, there is a better way.
PS: From a sensible drug policy perspective, it should be noted that tobacco use in the United States decreased dramatically from 1965 without anyone being killed or imprisoned. Tobacco has become known as one of the most dangerous psychoactive substances, but instead of being criminalized, tobacco use was treated as an emergent public health issue that was responded to with education campaigns based on scientific facts and programs that compassionately helped those struggling with problematic use. I would argue that these successful harm reduction measures should be the gold standard from which all other drug policy should be based.