Tobacco as the good guy? Not in this lifetime! But if you knew about genetically modified tobacco and the potential benefits that bioscientists are developing from it, you wouldn’t be so quick to condemn the plant, because you just might end up eating your words.
In the latter years of the 1990s, bioengineers who had developed and produced genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) were in the hot seat. They had to deflect criticisms from consumer advocates and environmentalists for their application of genetic engineering to common food crops and animals. The uproar over its distribution for human consumption began in Europe and spread to the US and other nations.
The key objective for creating genetically modified organisms is undoubtedly its presumed benefits to producers and consumers alike. It aims to increase the resistance of plants and crops to diseases brought about by insects and viruses, or acquired immunity to herbicides through constant exposure. By doing so, producers can bring down the cost of farming and prices of foods are consequently lowered, benefiting both sides. Genetically modified animals, on the other hand, are developed purportedly to accelerate pharmaceutical research and develop and discover new drugs for human usage.
The controversy of GMOs is based on various issues. Ethical, environmental and safety concerns top the list, with neither proponents nor opponents willing to budge an inch. For the longest time it looked like a case of “never the twain shall meet.” Or so everyone thought.
Genetically Modified Tobacco
Until along came genetically modified tobacco. Tobacco, especially to the hardcore environmentalists and the non-smokers, is a perennial evil at best or the devil incarnate at worst, neither of which is too flattering for tobacco. So many diseases and deaths have been blamed on smoking; and sadly, these tragic events are true and could have been prevented if people didn’t smoke. Claiming that GMO tobacco can give people benefits will have the skeptics sneering and the non-believers rolling up their eyes. There is truth, however, to the claim.
It was Dr. Mark Conkling, then a molecular biologist and researcher at North Carolina State University, who cloned the nicotine gene in tobacco plants and used his knowledge in genetic engineering to produce a genetically modified plant that had its nicotine content reduced. His expertise was sought by cigarette companies to continue their business by coming up with reduced-nicotine cigarettes, in the guise of efforts to lessen the exposure of smokers to the risks associated with smoking.
The good side of their strategy paid off. Recently, the National Institutes of Health used these low-nicotine cigarettes in their endless drive to find yet another way to lessen nicotine addiction. If nicotine patches and gums had very low success rates in smoking cessation, continuing to smoke using the low-nicotine tobacco might be more effective. It’s an art of war wherein the enemy is defeated by using its own weapon.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 46 million adults in the US smoke cigarettes. That’s almost 21 percent, and it poses a grave threat to the current and future state of the country. In spite of the health information programs and smoking cessation campaigns being done, the figures continue to rise.
In two independent double-blind studies conducted by a group from the University of Wisconsin Medical School, with both studies using nicotine patches to help subjects quit smoking (the difference between the two being the counseling intervention), 83 and 97 percent of the two groups were still smoking after six months. The studies ended up proving that nicotine replacement therapy products were not as effective as advertised by the pharmaceutical companies.
In separate clinical trials led by Hatsukami DK, et al, they arrived at the following conclusions:
Cigarettes made from GM tobacco were found to be effective in a smoking cessation program;
Smokers who switched to genetically modified tobacco products had a 32 percent lowered concentration of nitrosamine and cotinine in their urines (the two cancer-causing compounds found in cigarettes); and
Smokers of GM tobacco have a reduced exposure to toxins found in traditional tobacco plants.
It must be said however, that the best alternative to quitting smoking is to go cold turkey and abstain totally from cigarettes and tobacco. Nothing beats reclaiming the healthy mind and body with an all-out purge of all 60 carcinogens in each cigarette.
Other Uses of Genetically Modified Tobacco
Low-nicotine cigarettes aren’t the only products that can be manufactured from GM tobacco plants. Scientists are experimenting with growing these plants so that they contain insulin, the hormone that's needed by the body to prevent diabetes from developing. They are also looking into the plants’ potential as a preventive measure against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Genetically engineered tobacco plants with a greater capacity for oil content in its leaves may be used as biofuel feedstock. And pharmaceutical companies are doing more research and development programs on GM tobacco as a main component for future drugs.
So, don’t be too hasty in writing off tobacco. Genetically modified, it may finally find its vindication in the near future. Like how the use of hemp has extended past it's bad associations with our better understanding of the plant and its more widespread use in everyday items, tobacco has a future in our society too - just not in its current form.