For a long time, I've put the blame for the mass hysteria of the anti-tobacco movement on misguided zealots - loony and uninformed health nuts, clean air Nazis, and various other "do what we say is good for you - or else" types. But now, I'm starting to believe that the anti-smoking movement is being bolstered by my old adversary, Big Pharma.

A recent article in the Annals of Internal Medicine advocates that tobacco dependency should be declared a medical disease - akin to asthma or diabetes - which, if you ask me, is completely absurd. The logic is that "smoking dependency" is similar to these other afflictions in that it can "cause multiple diseases/complications." Well ... I'd argue that point. But here's the crux of the argument: like asthma and diabetes sufferers, patients with "smoking dependency" have "increased odds of achieving treatment goals with medications." Hence, the article concludes that "optimal treatment combines behavioral component with medications."

The operative phrase here is "with medications." Who do you think would produce (and market and profit from) these medications? Who else? Big Pharma. And the products that are approved for helping people to quit smoking - nicotine patches, nicotine gums, and the rest - are being positioned as PERMANENT substitutes for smoking. So in effect, you'd just be transferring your addiction (and, of course, your money) from Big Tobacco to Big Pharma.

Incredibly, the authors of this article are doctors who profit directly from the pharmaceutical firms that would be reaping the huge financial benefits of declaring tobacco dependency as a chronic medical disease. Both authors are consultants to Pfizer, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, and Celtic Pharma - companies that manufacture some of the most widely used nicotine substitutes. Pfizer makes the nicotine nasal spray Nicotrol; Glaxo makes Nicorette gum, Commit nicotine lozenges, and the nicotine patch Nicoderm; and Novartis is the maker of another brand of nicotine gum called Thrive. All of these represent billions of dollars worth of nicotine replacement therapies. And as expensive as cigarettes are, the price of these nicotine replacement therapies is often much more.

Of course, my problems with this run deeper than just conflict of interest on the part of the authors, and the (usual) naked profit motive of Big Pharma. Anti-smoking zealotry has always bugged me - primarily because there are piles of studies and research on BOTH sides of the tobacco-as-health-hazard argument. A lot of it is inconclusive in its findings.

But you'd never know this from the presentation of the issue in the smarmy mainstream media or among the politicians angling for another tobacco tax or some other form of regulation. They show us only the research that paints the most alarming picture - no matter how flawed its methodology or how biased its authors. What this means is that the average American couldn't make a truly informed decision about whether or not to smoke even if he wanted to.

But when you factor in the insidious power and wealth of the mega-pharmaceutical corporations, and the fact that these can benefit directly from molding the argument about tobacco - that's when I get riled. I know that in this day and age with all the mania about smoking being a fast track to the grave, it's nearly impossible to argue from the pro- smoking side of things (though that's what I intend to do). And if you want to quit smoking, that's OK - it's a matter of personal freedom, which I'm always for. But Big Pharma is trying to seed the idea that you CANNOT quit smoking without the assistance of pharmacological aids.

Surely, the ultimate goal of Big Pharma in their efforts to re-classify smoking as a chronic ailment is so the insurance companies will have to pay for anti-smoking aids like nicotine gums and patches as part of health insurance or prescription plans. Because - whether it's proven or not - the assumption will be that nicotine drugs will be safer than smoking.

In fact, this assumption could be dead wrong. Studies have shown that medicinal nicotine substitutes are far from harmless. Buproprion, a common nicotine substitute, has been known to cause seizures. And the substitute varenceline has been linked to psychiatric disturbances - including suicides. Does that sound like the sort of stuff you should be pumping into your body for the rest of your life?

As always, when Big Pharma seems to be doing something good for society, there are big bucks involved. Personally, I'd rather keep smoking than putting any money into corporate pharmaceutical coffers.