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"Safer" Cigarettes: A History

  • By Tara Parker-Pope
  • Posted 10.02.01
  • NOVA

Although the cigarette industry has spent much of the past 50 years denying a link between smoking and disease, the industry has also dedicated a significant amount of time and money to develop a "safe" cigarette. A safe cigarette that can both satisfy smokers' demands for taste and nicotine delivery and placate public health concerns is the Holy Grail of the tobacco industry. The company that comes up with it first likely could dominate the entire industry by selling the newfangled smoke at a significant premium and grabbing market share from its competitors.

As early as the 1950s, cigarette manufacturers began looking into the prospects for "healthy" smokes. Enlarge Photo credit: © HultonArchive/iStockphoto

Indeed, in the 1950s, Philip Morris researchers already saw the potential of a "healthy" cigarette and had even begun to suggest that the company could capitalize on health concerns by admitting that cigarettes were harmful. "Evidence is building up that heavy smoking contributes to lung cancer," wrote a Philip Morris scientist in July 1958. He then suggested that the company have the "intestinal fortitude to jump to the other side of the fence," and that the company would have a "wealth of ammunition" to attack competitors who did not have safer cigarettes.

Smoke screens

But several factors have stood in the way of the development of a safer smoke. Taking the toxins out of cigarette smoke has turned out to be a technological challenge. The biggest problem has been maintaining the taste and smoking sensations that smokers crave—so far, no company has overcome those obstacles. And industry lawyers have balked at the suggestions that cigarette makers embark on research to make safe cigarettes out of fears of the tricky legal problem such research would create for the entire industry. Patrick Sheehy, the former chief executive of British American Tobacco, wrote in 1986 that safe cigarette research would be tacit admission that cigarettes are dangerous. "In attempting to develop a 'safe' cigarette you are, by implication, in danger of being interpreted as accepting the current product is unsafe, and this is not a position that I think we should take," he wrote.

Among manufacturers, finding a way to remove toxins from cigarette smoke has long been, well, a burning desire. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

Finally, the safe cigarette has been stymied by the very groups who are most concerned about the health effects of smoking: antitobacco groups and public health officials. The cigarette industry's efforts to market safer cigarettes have been met with fierce opposition by antitobacco activists, who want to see such products labeled as nicotine delivery devices and subjected to government regulations. Although the opposition of health groups to a safe cigarette would seem contradictory, it is borne out of a deep mistrust of the cigarette companies, whose strategy of denial over the years has created a credibility gap with the public health community.

The "tar derby"

The cigarette makers first began making noises about safer cigarettes in the 1950s during a period now known among historians as the "tar derby." As a result of growing public concerns about smoking and health, the cigarette makers responded with a variety of new filter cigarettes that would ostensibly reduce tar levels. But the rise of the filter cigarette was more a marketing ploy than anything else. There was little evidence to suggest that filter cigarettes were any healthier than regular cigarettes, and the tobacco companies' own researchers knew this to be the case. A 1976 memo from Ernest Pepples, Brown & Williamson's vice president and general counsel, noted that filter cigarettes surged from less than 1 percent of the market in 1950 to 87 percent in 1975. "In most cases, however, the smoker of a filter cigarette was getting as much or more nicotine and tar as he would have gotten from a regular cigarette. He had abandoned the regular cigarette, however, on the ground of reduced risk to health," wrote Pepples.

More than 150 patents related to designing safe cigarettes have been filed in the past 25 years.

Even today, many smokers think that low-tar or so-called light or ultra-light cigarettes are better for them than full-strength smokes. Because reducing tar levels also tends to lower nicotine levels, studies have shown that smokers inadvertently compensate for the loss of the nicotine. Smokers of low-tar cigarettes inhale more deeply, take puffs more often, and even cover up the tiny holes near the filter that were put there to reduce the amount of smoke, and subsequently the amount of tar, that a smoker inhales. (To take a closer look at ventilation holes and other design elements in today's cigarettes, see Anatomy of a Cigarette.)

To get an idea of the health effects of various ingredients of smoke, cigarette makers have painted the skin of laboratory mice with toxicants. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

Toward "safer" smokes

During the 1960s cigarette makers embarked on extensive research to create a safe cigarette. The goal was to remove the toxins from a conventional cigarette without altering the taste or smoking experience. Memos from that time period show that some tobacco company executives were genuinely interested not only in profits but in making their products healthier. In 1962, Charles Ellis, a British American Tobacco research executive, noted that painting mice with "fresh" smoke condensate, more similar to the "fresh" smoke inhaled by smokers, might prove to be more harmful than the older, stored condensate often used in such experiments. "This possibility need not dismay us, indeed it would mean that there really was a chemical culprit somewhere in smoke, and one, moreover, that underwent a reaction fairly quickly to something else. I feel confident that in this case we could identify this group of substances, and it would be worth almost any effort, by preliminary treatment, additives, or filtration, to get rid of it."

Industry documents show that tobacco companies focused their safe-cigarette research on several areas, including the development of synthetic tobacco, boosting nicotine levels in low-tar cigarettes (so smokers wouldn't have to compensate for a loss of nicotine), and selective filtration of the most toxic substances in cigarette smoke, such as carbon monoxide. Research into safe cigarettes also has focused on the removal or lowering of four types of carcinogenic compounds: nitrosamines, widely viewed as the most deadly cancer-causing agents in tobacco smoke; aldehydes, formed by the burning of sugars and cellulose in tobacco; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH's), which form in the cigarette behind the burning tip; and traces of heavy metals present in tobacco as a result of fertilizers used on the plant.

Further hurdles

But despite the industry's early optimism about simply removing the toxic elements from a cigarette, the quest for a safe cigarette proved to be a technically and politically daunting challenge. Industry researchers often found ways of lowering one or two of the dangerous compounds, only to discover that their tinkering had either increased the level of some other harmful compound or so dramatically altered the cigarette that it wouldn't be accepted by consumers. In 1975, Brown & Williamson introduced a new cigarette, Fact, which had been designed to selectively remove certain compounds, including cyanide, from cigarette smoke. But the product was pulled from the market after just two years.

Cigarette producers have spent fortunes trying to develop a safer cigarette, only to abandon products not long after launch in many cases. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

Scientists also experimented with tobacco substitutes, including ingredients made with wood pulp, that were said to be less toxic than tobacco. But those products ran into a new set of problems because they were no longer a naturally occurring tobacco product but a synthetic creation about which health claims were being made. That meant government regulators viewed the tobacco substitutes more like drugs, subjecting them to a regulatory morass that the cigarette makers wanted to avoid. In 1977, a few British tobacco companies, Imperial, Gallaher, and Rothmans, which could avoid U.S. Food and Drug Administration scrutiny, launched several versions of cigarettes made with tobacco substitutes. But the products met with resistance from health groups, who claimed the new cigarettes were still unsafe, and the products floundered and were withdrawn after just a few months.

The XA Project

In the 1970s, Liggett Group, Inc. embarked on its own safe-cigarette program known as the "XA Project." The project focused on blending additives to tobacco to neutralize cancer-causing compounds. The company discovered that blending certain catalysts with tobacco would destroy PAH's—the dangerous compounds which form behind the cigarette's burning tip. The problem was, the company had demonstrated this in mouse skin painting tests—the same type of test conducted by Ernest Wynder that the entire tobacco industry had spent years debunking. Nonetheless, skin painting tests related to the XA Project showed that cancerous tumors were virtually eliminated when the catalyst was added to tobacco.

Do "safer" cigarettes imply that regular cigarettes are unsafe? Manufacturers have worried about that impression even as they try to develop the less-dangerous alternatives. Enlarge Photo credit: © Alex Gumerov/iStockphoto

Liggett faced a marketing problem if it pursued the XA Project cigarettes. How could the company market the benefits of the XA Project cigarettes without making health claims that would subject it to government scrutiny? And how could the company promote mouse skin tests as proof their new cigarettes worked at the same time its lawyers were in courtrooms challenging the validity of mouse tests while defending the company against smokers' lawsuits? A former industry lawyer now says that Liggett was pressured by other cigarette makers to abandon the effort because the "marketing and sale of a safe cigarette could result in infinite liability in civil litigation as it would constitute a direct or implied admission that all other cigarettes were unsafe." Liggett eventually abandoned the project.

Although the product looked like a traditional cigarette, it required its own instruction booklet.

By the early 1980s, other cigarette makers also had abandoned many of their efforts to develop a safe cigarette. In addition to the technological hurdles they faced, industry lawyers had grown increasingly wary about the research, and the concession, implicit in such research, that existing cigarettes weren't safe. Nonetheless, more than 150 patents related to designing safe cigarettes have been filed in the United States and the United Kingdom during the past 25 years. Tobacco executives say the fact that a patent has been filed doesn't mean the product is necessarily marketable or acceptable to consumers, but the sheer volume of patents shows that the industry has invested heavily in developing a safer cigarette even as its own executives were denying any link between smoking and disease. And there are now several claims from former industry workers that many tobacco companies shelved research into safer products out of fear of exposing themselves to additional liability. In 1998, for instance, a former Philip Morris researcher testified that the company shelved promising research to remove cadmium, a lung irritant, from tobacco plants.

Smokers didn't give Premier a chance, its maker maintains. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

High-tech cigarettes

Despite such criticism, the major cigarette makers have attempted to market several versions of safer cigarettes. In 1988, RJR introduced a high-tech cigarette called Premier. Premier, touted as a virtually smokeless cigarette that dramatically reduced the cancer-causing compounds inhaled by smokers, was made of aluminum capsules that contained tobacco pellets. The pellets were heated instead of burned, thereby producing less smoke and ash than traditional cigarettes. Although the product looked like a traditional cigarette, it required its own instruction booklet showing consumers how to light it.

From the beginning, Premier had several strikes against it. RJR had spent an estimated $800 million developing the brand, and the total cost was expected to soar to $1 billion by the time it was placed in national distribution. The costly project was put into test market just as Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. had embarked on a $25 billion leveraged buyout of RJR that had saddled the company with debt. And the cigarette faced a lengthy regulatory battle after public health officials argued it should be regulated by the FDA as a drug. But the biggest problem with Premier was the fact that consumers simply couldn't get used to it. Many smokers complained about the taste, which some smokers said left a charcoal taste in their mouths. RJR had also gambled that smokers would be willing to give Premier several tries before making a final decision about whether to smoke it. RLR estimated that to acquire a taste for Premier, smokers would have to consume two to three packs to be won over. But as it turned out, most smokers took one cigarette and shared the rest of the pack with friends, and few bothered to buy it again. RJR scrapped the brand in early 1989, less than a year after it was introduced.

In 1989, Philip Morris entered the fray with a virtually nicotine-free cigarette called Next that it claimed was better than other low-nicotine varieties because its taste was indistinguishable from regular cigarettes. The nicotine was removed from Next using high-pressure carbon dioxide in a process similar to the method used by coffee companies when making decaffeinated coffee. Next cigarettes were touted for their "rich flavor" and referred to as "de-nic" cigarettes. But tobacco critics complained that Next actually had higher tar levels than many cigarettes, and that heavy smokers would simply smoke more Next cigarettes to give their bodies the nicotine they crave. (To learn how the brain becomes dependent on nicotine, see The Dope on Nicotine.) The product flopped and was withdrawn.

In RJR's Eclipse, most of the tobacco doesn't burn but rather heats up, producing a smoke-like vapor. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

Smokeless smokes

Despite those setbacks, both RJR and Philip Morris have tried again with high-tech versions of smokeless cigarettes. In 1994, RJR began testing the Eclipse smokeless cigarette, which claimed to reduce secondhand smoke by 85 to 90 percent. Eclipse is more like an ordinary cigarette than its predecessor Premier because it contains tobacco and reconstituted tobacco. But it also includes a charcoal tip that, when lighted, heats glycerin added to the cigarette but does not burn the tobacco. The result is a cigarette that emits tobacco flavor without creating ash and smoke. But RJR isn't touting Eclipse as a safe cigarette, instead marketing it as a more socially acceptable product less offensive to non-smokers. Indeed, because Eclipse still burns some tobacco, it has tar levels similar to those of ultra-light cigarettes already on the market. Eclipse emits lower tar levels of cancer-causing compounds than many existing cigarettes, but it still produces carbon monoxide and nicotine. And questions have also been raised about the effects of heating glycerin. When burned, glycerin is known to be carcinogenic. It also remains unclear whether the FDA will attempt to regulate Eclipse if RJR launches it nationally.

The research still raises concerns that smokers could be lulled into a false sense of security.

Philip Morris is testing its own high-tech cigarette called Accord, which has been described as a cigarette encased in a kazoo-shaped lighter. Consumers buy a $40 kit that includes a battery charger, a puff-activated lighter that holds the cigarette, and a carton of special cigarettes. To smoke the cigarettes, a smoker sucks on the kazoolike box. A microchip senses the puff and sends a burst of heat to the cigarette. The process gives the smoker one drag and does not create ashes or smoke. An illuminated display shows the number of puffs remaining, and the batteries must be recharged after every pack. It's unclear whether smokers will find the low-smoke and -ash benefits desirable enough to justify learning an entirely new smoking ritual. Although Philip Morris doesn't make health claims about Accord, the company in 1998 told the Society of Toxicology that Accord generated 83 percent fewer toxins than a regular cigarette.

For forty dollars, the Accord smoker gets a battery charger, heating device, and carton of special cigarettes. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

The Best Cigarette?

Perhaps the most promising new technology to make a safer cigarette lies in research to lower nitrosamines, those prevalent and deadly cancer-causing compounds in cigarettes. Brown & Williamson and RJR are developing cigarettes that use a special tobacco with lower nitrosamine content. The tobacco is cured with a special process that inhibits the formation of nitrosamines. But Brown & Williamson isn't planning to tout the health benefits of the nitrosamine-free smoke. "We can't be sure nitrosamine-free tobacco is necessarily safer," a B&W spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal. "We don't want to claim the product is safer unless we are sure it is. It's a bit of a muggy area."

Although public health officials describe the quest for a nitrosamine-free cigarette as a step in the right direction, the research still raises concerns that smokers could be lulled into a false sense of security. Cigarettes without nitrosamines still produce other carcinogens, scientists say, and more smokers die of heart-related ailments than cancer. As Dietrich Hoffmann of the American Health Foundation says, "The best cigarette is no cigarette."

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Search for a Safe Cigarette.

Tara Parker-Pope, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, is the author of Cigarettes: Anatomy of an Industry From Seed to Smoke (The New Press, 2001), from which this article was excerpted with permission.

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