Nicotine Is Not Poison

Indulge me in a bit of a hobbyhorse, if you will. This is responding to Andrew Sullivan, who says it is and quotes a graf from this Wired piece:

And it’s that elegant arrangement that turns nicotine into such an effective poison, moving through the bloodstream with exceptional speed. When inhaled, nicotine travels from lung to brain in an estimated seven seconds. Toxicologists estimate that a fully smoked cigarette delivers about 1 mg of nicotine to the lungs; this compares to a lethal dose estimate of 30-60 mg. (For further comparison, the lethal dose range for arsenic is 70-200 mg.) The International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS) notes that: “Nicotine is one of the most toxic of all poisons and has a rapid onset of action. Apart from local caustic actions, the target organs are the peripheral and central nervous systems.”

It’s a good piece, but calling various drugs “poisons” as if this counts for something is foolish. By this standard basically everything, including water, is a poison, it just depends on the dose. Rather we could say that nicotine is a drug with an unusually low margin of error, meaning a fatal dose is only a small multiple of an active dose.

As a counter-example, we could consider LSD, which has an unusually high margin of error, despite its reputation. According to this study there have been no well-documented fatal overdoses, ever, and some people have taken unbelievable quantities (on the order of 1000 times a recreational dose) accidentally and made a full recovery. Try that with nicotine or alcohol and you would be dead as a hammer.

Anyway, that’s not to particularly recommend LSD, it’s just to say that trying to label a drug as either poisonous or not doesn’t actually tell us much worth knowing. To try and tie this back into the policy realm, drug policy should be based on the best available evidence and reasoning, and we should avoid alarmist, simplistic slogans. (Not that Sullivan is particularly guilty of that, usually he’s quite good on these things, this is just a common misconception that bugs me.)

Ryan Cooper is the Monthly handyman. Follow him on Twitter @RyanLouisCooper.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is national correspondent for the Week, and a former web editor for the Washington Monthly.