NOVA Online (see text links below)
Search for a Safe Cigarette  

Smoke With all the heat they've taken for promoting smoking, cigarette manufacturers have spent fortunes trying to develop a "safer" cigarette.
"Safer" Cigarettes: A History
by Tara Parker-Pope

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. 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.

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.

burning cigarette Among cigarette manufacturers, finding a way to remove toxins from cigarette smoke is, well, a burning desire.

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.

Carleton cigarette ad One of the competitors in the "tar derby."
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.)

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.

Still from animation This animation shows how the heat from tobacco combustion causes molecules to fragment into unstable arrangements, which recombine to form carcinogenic compounds of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH's.

See the animation in:
QuickTime | RealVideo

Get video software:
QuickTime | RealVideo

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.

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.

Continue: The XA Project

To Print

Anatomy of a Cigarette | "Safer" Cigarettes: A History | The Dope on Nicotine | On Fire
Resources | Teacher's Guide | Transcript | Site Map | Search for a Safe Cigarette Home

Search | Site Map | Previously Featured | Schedule | Feedback | Teachers | Shop
Join Us/E-Mail | About NOVA | Editor's Picks | Watch NOVAs online | To print
PBS Online | NOVA Online | WGBH

© | Updated October 2001
Shop Teachers Feedback Schedule Previously Featured Site Map Search NOVA Home Search for a Safe Cigarette Home Site Map Search for a Safe Cigarette Home