Want to know how much sodium is in your tomato soup? It's there on the package. Curious about whether your shampoo contains jojoba? Check the label. Wondering how much cancer-causing meta-Dimethoxybenzene is in your cigarette? Too bad. Asking yourself whether your cocktail contains animal-derived additives like sturgeon's bladder enzymes? You're out of luck.
Almost every product in the world is required by law to carry a truthful listing of its components. All except alcohol and tobacco products -- two of the deadliest items on store shelves.
The worst, by far, is the dearth of labeling requirements for cigarettes. If tobacco products carried a full accounting of their ingredients, a pack of cigarettes would be the size of volume one of the Oxford English Dictionary. The average cigarette, by many estimates, contains over 600 whole ingredients comprised of about 4,000 chemical compounds, many of them toxic -- like benzene, chromium, and more than 40 other known carcinogens. Want a shock? Check out this list of some of the things that go into a cigarette. Your stomach will turn.
Compounding the evil, cigarette makers target kids by making cigarettes accessible and enticing. Lab tests have shown that cigarettes contain some of the same ingredients as children's candies, like maple syrup, licorice, peppermint oil, vanilla and chocolate flavorings.
The tobacco industry argues that disclosing its formulas would mean giving away trade secrets. But I have to ask, if the same is required of other products -- even products like cosmetics, which are not consumed into the body -- why make a special exception for tobacco, which kills?
There are only two jurisdictions in the world that I'm aware of where cigarette makers are required by law to list the ingredients in their products on the packaging: British Columbia and Massachussetts. And in Massachussetts, the tobacco companies are still fighting tooth and nail to overturn the law. They obviously have something to hide.
The group doing the very best work on this topic is Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), which has branches in both the United Kingdom and the United States.
ASH UK's site has an indispensible activist's calendar and other suggestions for getting involved in tobacco-control efforts, including tips for pressuring local, national, and international bodies to require a meaningful inventory of ingredients on every package of cigarettes.
Also useful is the GASP web site, where you can get leaflets, books, activity packs, posters, and other tools for educating and activating against tobacco.
It's easy to assume that everyone understands just how dangerous tobacco is -- that is, until you notice yet another 14-year-old lighting up outside a convenience store. It's clear that we need to keep working to broadcast the truth about tobacco. Making tobacco companies acknowledge the poisons in their products would be a big step in the right direction.