Does smoking organically grown tobacco lower the chance of lung cancer?

Let me begin by saying that the overall quality of the Straight Dope is quite good, and I’ve often used it as a reference.

However, I really took issue with this part of the article:

This appears to be paraphrased from Dr. Ed Martell’s paper:

Which also concludes:

That’s certainly nothing to brush off.

This is the part that I really took issue with. You claim polonium doesn’t “rank high”, without any sourcing. I’ve certainly never seen anything to the effect of a ranked list of the carcinogenity of the compounds in cigarette smoke. If you can produce one that’d be great, but I would imagine that due to the differing mechanisms by which various compounds elicit carcinogenic/mutagenic effects, producing such a list would be quite difficult. Radioactivity from Po210/Pb210 is obviously a substantially different mechanism from benzopyrenes or nitrosamines.

The big problem with both nitrosamines and radioactive polonium is that are both completely preventable. Nitrosamines can be prevented through the use of indirect fire curing with clean air, as opposed to flue curing tobacco over an open flame. Polonium can likewise be prevented through a number of methods, such as using ammonium phosphate fertilizer. Organic production isn’t required.

I don’t understand the motivation behind the attitude that it’s okay to leave preventable carcinogens in cigarettes because there’s so many already in there that eliminating preventable ones is pointless. I suppose we’ll have to wait for hard evidence as to what changes to cigarette composition may affect cancer rates before the government is willing to take any action.

Since “all smokers must die” seems to be a more popular meme than “let’s work to make smokers healthier, because that’s our obligation to them as a society”, good freakin’ luck.

ETA: This is a very well-presented argument, and I hope you stick around here. Remember that if you can’t or don’t want to pony up the $14.95 at the end of your 30-day trial, someone else will usually pay for you if you ask nicely.

Yeah, seriously!

These anti-smoking people hate smoking so much, they only want to see it be outlawed, not made better. I think they even have laws against cigarettes brands ever mentioning they’re less harmful, whether or not there are studies solidly backing that claim. Cigarettes also never list their ingredients. Anti-smoking ads say it’s because the cigarette companies want it that way. Truth is, it’s the anti-smoking people who want it that way. (Same reason why light beer isn’t allowed to tell you its calories.)

It’s like absistenence-only education. You either stop, or you die! And never teach about condoms. (And hell, the hippies themsleves never teach about pulling out.)

So much for actually caring about people’s health.

On second thought, I’m starting to wonder if the above made sense. But anyway, more people are hurt when things, like cigarettes or sex, are made more harmful just to prove a point.

Here’s a link to Cecil’s column.

I’m not quite sure what Bascule’s point is. If it’s that changing fertilizers and drying methods would make tobacco safe enough to smoke without getting lung cancer, there’s no research on that. However, tobacco itself is hazardous stuff.

It’s not hard to grow it yourself, if you want to. You can start with the purest loam, use polonium-free fertilizers, pick all the bugs off by hand (so you don’t smoke any pesticides,) and slowly air dry it in your own pole barn, the old way. You can roll it in your own handmade, bleach-free papers. It will still be bad for you. If you have enough money to pay for extensive testing of your handcrafted cigarettes, it isn’t hard to get it done. The equipment and techniques already exist to force rats and beagles to smoke cigarettes.

I’m pretty sure your home-grown tobacco will taste better than the factory cigs. Like most home-grown things, it might cost more per cigarette than Marlies. If you didn’t spray the leaves with ammonia, they might be less addicting. But safe? I doubt it. :dubious:

Tobacco is one of those things that seemed like a great idea at the time, but it turned out to be really stupid. Columbus and Raleigh were born risk-takers, but if they had known what a plague they were about to export, I don’t think they would have taken any tabac home.

Growing your own tobacco might yield a slightly less hazardous cigarette than the commercial variety, as this N.Y. Times editorial from earlier this year on a Harvard School of Public Health study indicates:

"When Harvard researchers reanalyzed the data they found that the nicotine yield per (commercially sold) cigarette rose by an average of 11 percent between 1998 and 2005, a conclusion contested by the industry.

Harvard researchers concluded that the companies managed this by using tobacco containing a higher concentration of nicotine and perhaps also by slowing the rate at which cigarettes burned — thus increasing the number of puffs per cigarette. The companies presumably hoped that additional nicotine would hook more new customers and keep old ones from breaking the habit."

If the home-grown cigarette had less nicotine and burned more quickly, there’d be (theoretically at least) a lower addiction potential and fewer puffs of carcinogens per cigarette.

A problem with suggesting commercial cigs to be more safe due to lower tar and nicotine levels was that smokers just went through more of them to satisfy their habit. If there was ever solid research to show that any formulation on the market led to better health outcomes, I’ve not heard of it.

The idea of organically grown tobacco being safer is a dubious proposition. Sure, you’d have, ideally, an absence of certain pesticide residues and whatever benefits “natural” fertilizer would provide. Of course there’s a potential for E. coli contamination of manure if that was the fertilizer used, and I don’t know if the drying process would make the tobacco sterile enough.

As a practical matter, if anyone wants to buy seed of interesting tobacco varieties, try the J.L. Hudson online seed catalog.

“Natural” tobacco may or may not end up safer, but surely artificial processing methods exist that will take out many of the harmful elements. If the chokehold on the industry was released and companies were allowed to compete on health, cancer deaths would drop. If these so-called hippies were running the show from the start, we wouldn’t even have filters.

basule, welcome to the Dope! A well written and reasoned OP.

I do feel free to question just how much knowledge you have about rad health physics: that is how radiation and radioactive contamination affects tissues and whole organisms. At the moment while everyone will say that minimizing dose is a good thing, no one can quantify how great the effect of [sup]210[/sup]Po contamination of cigarette tobacco might be.
One of the problems with quantifying the hazard from [sup]210[/sup]Po for smokers is that it’s not the only environmental source of particulate alpha particle emitters that your average smoker will be exposed to. The household Radon gas remediation industry may be something of a scam, but it’s based on a real phenomenon. Radon does outgas from the earth and the particulate decay daughter do accumulate in low-flow areas, such as basements, and the lungs of people who breathe in the particulate. Given that atmospheric temperature inversions are fairly common (more so in some areas than others, of course) local, temporary high concentrations of Ra and Ra decay daughters can occur. And like the [sup]210[/sup]Po for contaminated tobacco, the particulate decay daughters will accumulate in the brachiations of the lung. Where they’ll shoot alpha particles at the cells forming those tubes.

Now, alpha particles (or alpha rays) are basically Helium nuclei moving at some fraction of the speed of light. As subatomic particles go, they’re highly charged, and very heavy. Because of those two traits, they tend not to penetrate very far, but they do transfer a great deal of energy to the material they hit during their short travels. But before you can say that they do a great deal of damage, instead of simply talking about the quantity of energy transferred, one has to consider what radiation damage to living tissues really means. The short, and dirty answer is that all forms of radiation (with the exception of neutron radiation) cause damage to living tissues by the creation of free radicals, or ions, in the cells of the living tissues. These free radicals then interfere with the normal metabolic processes of the cell, and if enough free radicals are concentrated in a single cell, it will die. If the damage is not that extensive, but still significant, it may affect the RNA or DNA of the cell to the point where it’s no longer operating within the normal framework for such a cell - which is one way that cancers may start.

But you can’t assume that all the energy deposited into the lungs of a smoker (or non-smoker) will be causing actual damage to their cells. The lungs have a mucous layer that serves to help filter and then remove particulate contaminants from the air we breathe. Because of the short distance that alpha particles travel, the thin layer of this mucous layer may be enough to shield the living tissue behind it from the alpha particles. This question is hotly debated in rad healthy physics circles, and so far I’ve not seen a consensus answer. It’s also one of the reasons that estimated dose levels for Ra and Ra decay daughters varies so wildly - no one has a model that has been universally accepted for just how much self-shielding the mucous layer may account for.

What I have seen accepted as generally being beyond debate is that any dose from [sup]210[/sup]Po that smokers may receive is, unless we’re talking about someone who’s smoking like a chimney, going to be overshadowed by the dose that the average person will receive from Ra and Ra decay daughters.

A caveat - the last time I researched this issue was back in 2004 or 2005. There may be new knowledge that makes what I’m saying outdated. (I doubt it, strongly, but I do want you to be aware of the possibility.) I’m not currently working in rad health physics, and only pay attention to the field as something of a hobby, so feel free to take what I’m saying with a grain of salt.