The evolution of addiction and the fetishisation of smoking

Paul Raven @ 20-05-2010

Not-entirely-unsurprising news from the world of evolutionary psychiatry: human use of psychoactive compounds found in plants and animals is thousands of years old, and evolutionary selection may actually have favoured those of our ancestors who were wired to get a kick from certain substances:

According to Randolph Nesse, evolutionary psychiatrist at the University of Michigan, at some time in humanity’s distant past, individuals whose brains had a heightened response to emotion-linked neurotransmitters (such as dopamine and serotonin) were better suited to survival.

This meant that as the generations passed, heightened response became the norm. […]

Archaeologists have found evidence of kola nut (caffeine), tobacco (nicotine), khat (an amphetamine-like plant), betel nut, and coca, at various sites dating back at least 13,000 years, indicating that humans have, in fact, been drug users for a very long time. Across the globe, people in non-Western cultures are very familiar with these and other mind-altering substances.

“It’s widely believed that human drug use is a new and pathological phenomenon,” says Roger Sullivan, an anthropologist at California State University at Sacramento. “But psychoactive plant toxins were a mundane occurrence in the environments of hominid evolution, and our ancestors may have been exploiting plant drugs for very long periods of time.”

Sullivan and Edward Hagen of Humbolt University in Berlin believe that compulsively seeking these items in the past might have been adaptive during times when nutrients were hard to find.

Human beings: getting baked to deal with hard times since 11,000 BC. Goes some way to explaining why drug legislation – a very very recent phenomenon indeed – has done so little to stop folk wanting to get loaded… and promises a whole new generation of slogans from psychoactive evangelists.

Speaking of legislation, control and addictive substances, here’s a research project of staggering pointlessness: how many videos of people smoking cigarettes in a fetishistic context are easily viewable by teenagers on YouTube?

“The high frequency of smoking fetish videos concerns me,” says Hye-Jin Paek,  associate professor of advertising, public relations, and retailing.

(With that sort of background, one assumes she’s eminently qualified to know how well associative imagery can push psychological buttons… )

Paek conducted the study of “smoking fetish” videos—videos that combine smoking and sexuality. “The fact that we can see the videos and analyze their content means that teenagers can see them too.

[…]

The majority of smoking fetish videos studied explicitly portrayed smoking behaviors, such as lighting up, inhaling, exhaling, and holding the tobacco product. More than half were rated PG-13 or R.

More than 21 percent of the videos contained at least one of the five fetish elements defined in the paper, including gloves, high heels, boots, stockings, and leather or latex clothes.

More than a fifth? O NOES! Well then, we’d better censor all that stuff pretty sharpish, hadn’t we – after all, wrapping up a behaviour one wants to discourage in veiled mystique, puritanical panics and age restrictions has always worked so well before… if we airbrush out everything we don’t like in the world, eventually everyone will be just as self-satisfied as we are!

[ Pre-emptive: I’m not suggesting that teenagers or anyone else smoking cigarettes is a “good” thing. What I’m suggesting is that worrying about videos of people smoking on YouTube as a strong cause of such is laughably foolish. ]


Medical insurers impressed by electronic smoker detector

Paul Raven @ 16-09-2009

cigarette buttsNot, that’s not a typo. A team of Australian scientists have built a device that can identify tobacco smokers without the need for bodily fluid samples:

[They] tweaked a commercially available e-nose so that it would detect the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the breath of a person who had smoked a cigarette.

The e-nose uses an array of 32 sensors whose electrical resistance changes as different VOCs are detected. The resultant “smellprint” correctly identified 37 out of 39 volunteers as either smokers or non-smokers.

Obviously the insurance companies are pretty interested in this little development – it would allow them to weed out those smokers who try to keep their premiums down by concealing their habit. There’s no news yet on devices that can detect the “pre-existing condition” of domestic abuse, though. [image by Saudi…]


What have cigarettes and climate change got in common?

Paul Raven @ 02-04-2009

burning cigarette tipWell, neither causes the other, for a start. But both the anti-smoking lobby and the climate change lobby have their moderates and their hard-liners. [image by Stewart]

For example, New Scientist reports on a schism in the anti-smoking field:

… Siegel has come under fire from colleagues in the field of smoking research. His offence was to post messages on the widely read mailing list Tobacco Policy Talk, in which he questioned one of the medical claims about passive smoking, as well as the wisdom of extreme measures such as outdoor smoking bans.

In front of his peers, funders and potential future employers, other contributors posted messages accusing Siegel of taking money from the tobacco industry. When Siegel stood his ground, the administrators kicked him off the list, cutting off a key source of news in his field. “It felt like I was excommunicated, says Siegel. “I was shocked: I’ve been a leader in the movement for 21 years.”

The similarities with climate change should be obvious, what with that scene also being full of people coming to a variety of conclusions based upon the same evidence. As with the smoking issues above, the end-result is a form of in-fighting, with the more moderate thinkers decrying the hard-liners for making the moderate view unpalatable by association – take climate ‘tipping points’, for example:

In reports released this month, both the World Bank and the United Nations Environment Program focused on tipping points as a prime concern. And last year, a team of European scientists published an influential paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences compiling what is known and not known about various climatic tipping points — including the loss of summer sea ice around the North Pole and worrisome changes in the West African monsoon.

The authors said they wanted to reduce the chance that “society may be lulled into a false sense of security by smooth projections of global change.”

On the other hand, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its influential 2007 report, expressly avoided specifying tipping points and instead concluded simply that the gradient of risk for a host of “large-scale discontinuities” increased with each degree of warming.

[snip]

As policymakers try to address the risks facing the planet from a warming climate, some experts worry that focusing on tipping points and thresholds will perpetuate paralyzing debates over specifics — and obscure the reality that decisions need to be made, even in the face of uncertainty.

What this makes abundantly clear is that – as climate skeptics are always keen to point out – scientific consensus isn’t like a choir singing in unison from the same song-sheet. And nor should it be… but it makes things very confusing for the layman, as increasingly frantic (and often inaccurate) media coverage makes it progressively more difficult to see the wood from the trees. All the scientists quoted in the article above agree that climate change is real and that we must act in light of that prognosis; however, the different ways in which they choose to interpret and communicate that data make that commonality less obvious.

Perhaps I stand to be accused of credulity myself, but I’m of the opinion that the vast majority of scientists – even those who claim that climate change is not a threat – are acting sincerely on their own beliefs rather than shilling for commercial or political interests. Do scientists with extreme and/or entrenched viewpoints overstate the cases made by the available data? Almost certainly; listen to any conversation about sports or music to hear ordinary people doing exactly the same thing. But do those extreme interpretations invalidate the more moderate thinking of those whose conclusions they have built upon? Not for me, at least. YMMV.