Before he directed award-nominated movies like Juno, Up in the Air, and Young Adult, Jason Reitman’s debut feature film was the bitingly sarcastic Thank You For Smoking, a tale of a unscrupulous spin-doctor for the tobacco industry. Being a self-described “Merchant of Death,” Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) becomes the target of pretty much everybody from his own family to a U.S. Senator.
During the course of the film, Nick is kidnapped by unknown assailants who strip him down to his skivvies and cover him with dozens of nicotine patches. Soon, Nick loses consciousness and later wakes up in a hospital, miraculously alive due to his personal high tolerance for nicotine that he gained from years of smoking cigarettes.
While the movie moves along to a sharp political and ethical point in the end, this scene got us thinking, just in case we needed to quit smoking and burn through the four-week patch program in a weekend, would covering ourselves with nicotine patches in one fell swoop kill us?
The Answer: Yes, we’d be smoked
Here’s the nasty little truth about the human body: Too much of anything can be dangerous. Even something as benign as water, in high enough quantities can be fatal as a condition known as water toxicity. In fact, back in 2007, a woman died from drinking too much water in the now-infamous “Hold your wee for a Wii” radio contest.
There are lots of bad things in cigarettes that we think of before nicotine – including carbon monoxide, tar, benzene, cyanide, formaldehyde, methanol, acetylene, and ammonia. However, it’s the nicotine in cigarettes that give smoker’s their buzz. It’s also what makes them so addictive. Nicotine may not be the main carcinogen in cigarettes, but it’s hardly a harmless chemical. There are multiple dangers to using nicotine-replacement therapy, including various cardiovascular diseases.
A fatal dose of nicotine can be between 30 to 60 mg for an adult male. Nicotine patches, like the ones used on Nick Naylor in Thank You for Smoking, have 21 mg of nicotine in them that is time-released through a special membrane over the course of 24 hours. The patches are designed to not even come close to releasing an overdose amount of the chemical, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be abused.
So how much nicotine would have been in his system?
It is unclear in Thank You For Smoking how many nicotine patches were on Nick’s body when he was discovered. It is also unclear how long the patches were on his body. However, during the scene, we see him start to get woozy almost immediately when the patches are stuck on him, and that might be a bit of an exaggeration. Still, the end results would be the same.
Assuming all 21 mg of nicotine is released into a person’s system over the course of 24 hours, then 0.875 mg are released each hour per patch. More than 30 patches can be seen or heard being slapped onto Nick’s body in the scene, and the shot of him lying on Lincoln’s lap in the Lincoln Memorial shows at least a dozen patches on his right side alone. Let’s assume that he had at least 35 patches on him after his kidnapping.
If each patch released 0.875 mg each hour, he would have 30.625 mg in his system at the end of the first hour, which is already a potentially lethal dose. In two hours, he would have 61.250 mg in his system. After three hours, he’d have 91.875 mg in his system, which would certainly have killed him.
Thank you for not OD’ing
Few people outside of those versed in Nick Naylor rhetoric can make a case for the beneficial nature of cigarettes. However, sometimes the “cure” can be problematic as well. Nicotine-replacement therapy is not simply harmless over-the-counter methodone for smokers. It can be abused, and it’s very dangerous when done so. Just because someone does it in a movie does not mean it’s a good thing to try, and it also doesn’t mean that it’s Hollywood hogwash either. Sometimes, Hollywood does get it right. Plus, those patches are hella expensive. Who could afford that many at one time, anyway?