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"Safer" Cigarettes: A History
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Mouse skin painting The mouse that roared
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.

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.

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.

Premier cigarettes Smokers didn't give Premier a chance, its maker maintains.

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.

Eclipse In RJR's Eclipse, most of the tobacco doesn't burn but rather heats up, producing a smoke-like vapor.
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.

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.

Accord For $40, the Accord smoker gets a battery charger, heating device, and carton of special cigarettes.

Lowering nitrosamines
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."

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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Anatomy of a Cigarette | "Safer" Cigarettes: A History | The Dope on Nicotine | On Fire
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