According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco use is the "single most preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the United States."
The CDC, based on 2011 data, suggests that 443,000 people die prematurely because of smoking or the effects of second-hand smoke, while another 8.6 million are afflicted with a serious illness related to smoking, such as asthma or COPD. Combined, smoking directly costs patients and their families $96 billion in medical expenses annually, and it costs the economy another $97 billion in lost productivity and premature death each year.
In short, smoking's negative effects are widely known. But, it nonetheless remains an important topic to me and others. Personally, my mother, a smoker of 44 years, passed away at the age of 58. The primary cause of her passing was lung cancer, which, along with heart disease, are some of the primary risks of smoking.
In their own right, these diseases are scary, but a terrifying new study released this past week by a team of eight researchers based in the U.S., U.K., and Canada and published in Molecular Psychiatry, demonstrated that smokers may have even more to fear.
This new study is terrifying for smokers
For the study, researchers examined 504 patients with a mean age of approximately 73 years old and aimed to find out what, if any, effect smoking might have on the structure of the brain -- specifically, cortical thickness.
Of the 504 patients, 36 were current smokers, 223 were former smokers, and 245 had never smoked tobacco. Disease histories were then collected on these individuals to best account for external variables that could affect the results. As the researchers note, the three groupings were well-matched with minimal variations in age, gender, and IQ at the time of their MRIs.
The results of the MRI showed that smokers exhibited a thinning in their cortical thickness relative to the other groups. The area of the brain where this thinning occurred is responsible for memory and language functions and can lead to cognitive decline. Researchers also observed a thinning of ex-smokers' cortex compared to patients who had never smoked. Researchers postulated that the cortex repaired itself once former smokers quit, but that the repair process was slow. In fact, researchers quote the repair time ranging from as little as a "few weeks" to a theoretical "140 years" based on the amount a person smoked.
However, there are other aspects of this study that will need additional validation. For instance, the cortex naturally thins as we age. Researchers surmised that smoking accelerated that action, but they admit further study on the topic would be needed.
Another point of contention from researchers is that the effect of smoking on the cortex could be indirect. While a number of external variables were controlled for in its study, there were others that could play a role in cortex thickness variance, such as forced expiratory volume within one second, or FEV1, IQ, and the Fazekas score (a measurement of white matter in the brain). Researchers commented:
It is necessary to acknowledge the possibility that covarying for FEV1 and Fazekas score might substantially control for the amount of smoking and hence overcorrect for the possible impact of smoking on the cortex.
Challenges grow for Big Tobacco
Even if the study results need further analysis, the authors were clear in suggesting that smokers' cortices exhibited more thinning than those of non-smokers, placing another possible black mark against tobacco use.
To put it mildly, Big Tobacco is struggling. A CDC report issued in December pointed out that adult smokers as a percentage of the population have shrunk to a new low of 17.8%. For context, 50 years ago, more than 40% of adults were smokers.
In response to falling tobacco use, companies such as Altria (NYSE:MO) and Reynolds American (NYSE:RAI) have looked to cut costs and increase prices in order to grow their bottom lines. A few years ago, Reynolds American shed 10% of its workforce, while Altria let go of 15% in order to keep its expenses down and its profits up. But, at some point, the rising cost of tobacco products is going to either price some smokers out of the market or press smokers into lower consumption. It's a trajectory that's potentially bad news for these companies.
Big Tobacco turns to alternatives -- but will they work?
In an effort to boost sales, Big Tobacco has been turning ever more toward smoking alternatives, with electronic cigarettes topping the list.
On one hand, it's difficult to argue that electronic cigarettes -- which heat a liquid often containing nicotine into a vapor that the user inhales -- haven't already been a success. Analysts at Wells Fargo estimated in July that electronic cigarettes sales would total $2 billion worldwide in 2014. That's still peanuts compared to global tobacco product sales, but it's impressive how far the product has advanced in just five years.
However, two key hurdles remain that could stop electronic cigarette growth in its tracks.
First, electronic cigarettes haven't exactly been proven safe over the long term. We've looked at a number of studies over the past couple of months that have pointed to some potentially scary findings. For example, a study from National Jewish Health showed that the liquid vapor from electronic cigarettes damages epithelial cells in users' airways almost immediately, and its effect can last for up to 48 hours. With this and other harmful studies floating around, it could be difficult for electronic cigarettes to gain traction.
The other concern here is that it's looking more likely that the Food and Drug Administration will declare electronic cigarettes a tobacco product, and thus exert its power to regulate the industry. Though this should result in higher levels of quality control, it will also dramatically slow industry growth. For a company like Reynolds American, which is trying to grow its Vuse brand, this isn't necessarily good news.
Long story short, the case against tobacco, which is arguably a mile long already, possibly lengthened this past week. For investors in tobacco companies, the prospects for growth continue to look bleaker every year. As I've suggested in the past, perhaps now is the time investors seriously consider parting ways for good with their tobacco stocks and never look back.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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