By Henry Ehrlich
Fans of the movie “Beverly Hills Cop” will remember Axel Foley (played by Eddie Murphy) saying to a criminal as they haggle over money for stolen cigarettes, “These are very popular with the children.” I was reminded of this after speaking with an English journalist who called to ask about the use of licorice (or as she spelled it in her email “liquorice”) as medicine in regard to the work of our contributor, my friend, and soon-to-be co-author Dr. Xiu-Min Li. The journalist found Dr. Li’s name because licorice is an ingredient in her three-herb asthma treatment ASHMI™. It has been used as an anti-inflammatory agent for centuries. Dr. Li shows why it works. Among other things, constituents of Chinese licorice, or glycyrrhiza uralensis, suppress the secretion of eotaxin, a chemokine that helps attract eosinophils, white blood cells that accumulate in most asthmatic lungs where inflammation is poorly controlled.
The journalist mentioned that licorice extracts are also used to flavor tobacco. Yuck.
Having always regarded Axel’s throwaway line as a joke, I decided to see if one thing had anything to do with the other, that maybe some of the same qualities that make licorice a good medicine also make it habit forming as a candy (Good & Plentys, like Lucky Strikes, are not sold one at a time) and something to do with its use in the evil chemistry of cigarettes. I found my way to the website of the German Cancer Research Center. A gold mine, or should I say a tar pit?
Licorice is commonly used safely to sweeten and flavor food as well as in herbal medicines and pharmaceuticals for its therapeutic properties (although in high doses it can have harmful side effects).
Licorice is a case in point for the idea that the same things that make medicines effective may have a double-edge when used irresponsibly. Glycyrhizzin, which is very sweet—important for use in Twizzlers as well as tobacco— “could potentially…open up the airways” according to the German cancer article. That would make it valuable for asthma treatment. However, in cigarettes, “in combination with other ingredients [it] could allow smokers to inhale deeper, making it easier for them to get their nicotine fix.”
Added to tobacco, licorice extracts account for up to four percent of the weight of a cigarette. When burned, “The sugars in the extract can also produce acidic compounds, which make it harder for the nicotine in the cigarette smoke to reach the brain. This forces smokers to inhale deeper and to also consume more cigarettes to get their nicotine fix. Furthermore, the use of licorice may be indirectly harmful due to the formation of compounds called aldehydes (e.g. acetaldehyde), which can make cigarettes more addictive by enhancing the addictive potential of nicotine. Aldehydes are very reactive and produce other compounds such as the substance harman, which can also make cigarettes more addictive due to its mood-enhancing effect on the brain.”
No wonder the kids love ‘em.