Let's help the tobacco companies!
Not being a smoker myself nor an expert on the methodologies used to assay nicotine content in tobacco products, I can't fully assess the merits of the approach the MDPH used. Their claims however seem quite plausible.
In the past, cigarette nicotine content was assessed by a metric called the "nicotine yield". This was done using a machine that generates cigarette smoke and then measures the content of the smoke. The reason for this approach was that measuring the absolute nicotine content in a batch of cigarettes doesn't reflect how much nicotine actually gets into the body. The physical structure of the cigarette itself also determines nicotine exposure.
Unfortunately, these smoking machines don't really simulate actual smoking practices very well. Air holes on the side of the cigarette allow air to be mixed in with the smoke during each breath thus diluting the actual nicotine dose received. However, most smokers occlude those holes with their fingers when they inhale. This causes less air to be entrained in the smoke stream and therefore raises the nicotine dose inhaled compared to that received by the machine (which doesn't occlude the holes).
It turns out that when the MDPH modified this measurment technique to take this effect into account, nicotine levels in American cigarettes have actually risen during the period studied. For example, Kool (manufactured by RJ Reynolds) has seen its level rise twenty percent rise during the study period. Nicotine levels as measured by this methodology have risen for Marlboro, Newport and Camel, the largest brands and others (ten percent across the industry).
Being the rather credulous person that I am, as I've mentioned, I don't much care for conspiracy theories . However, that these actions were inadvertent pushes the "benefit of the doubt" envelope more than seems appropriate.
In general, I'm a strong advocate of free markets. But I also believe that our capitalistic system is not an economic suicide pact. I also refuse to accept that businesses should necessarily be completely devoid of all remnants of morality in their quest to maximize shareholder return.
If the findings of the MDPH are true then this strikes me as shameful and incredibly cynical behavior of some of the largest corporations in the world.
According to the NYT article linked above, the largest tobacco manufacturers, Philip Morris and Reynolds American "declined to comment". Perhaps they never suspected that their actions would ever be discovered or suspected and they never imagined that they'd have to answer to them. I have no doubt that their public relations departments are now scrambling to come up with some palatable responses.
In the interest of helping these much-beleagered tobacco company lackeys, I propose that we assist them in coming up with excuses for their inevitable press releases. I suggest the following:
There's no proof that increased nicotine content leads to increased tobacco consumption. -- this may convince the occasional die-hard empiricist so wedded to evidence-based medicine that he's turned off his nonsense detector. As an aside, this may actually be true. However, the tobacco companies would be hard-pressed to get such a study approved by a human subjects review committee and then use the data to make a dangerous practice even more dangerous.
This was totally unintentional. -- We had NO IDEA that the changes we made to our cigarette designs would increase nicotine ingestion. (Said with fingers crossed hoping that no one will notice that such changes were made in multiple brands by multiple companies.)
We are very concerned and will be looking into this immediately. -- The last refuge of the (corporate) scoundrel: bury concerns in massive bureaucracy. They can always wait until Brittany Spears forgets to buckle up her kid again to bump this rather inconvenient story off the headlines. This is also a variant of the Claude Rains, Casablanca approach ("I'm shocked, SHOCKED to discover gambling going on here!")
We forgot! -- the classic Steve Martin approach as in "We forgot our responsibilities to promote the health and welfare of our fellow man and to not plant our customers in the ground.
I'm sure there are others that more imaginative and fanciful readers can come up with!
The tobacco companies have to be concerned that these irresponsible and reprehensible actions, if intentional and true, will result in a new round of tobacco lawsuits. I for one will be very interested to see the company memos regarding this issue that may one day be discovered.