"Search for a Safe Cigarette"

PBS Airdate: October 2, 2001
Go to the companion Web site

NARRATOR: It's a ritual practiced almost everywhere—every aspect designed to engage and satisfy the senses. Each day 15 billion cigarettes are consumed around the world—more than two for every human being alive.

Despite all appearances, the tobacco in this cigarette is not burning. What looks like smoke is, for the most part, vapor from water and glycerin, laced with flavored nicotine, released by the heat from a bit of burning charcoal in the tip. It's one of a new group of products designed to produce fewer toxins.

Although these cigarettes come with the hope of a safer smoke, they have unleashed a storm of controversy.

MITCH ZELLER (American Legacy Foundation): The tobacco industry will do anything that it can to keep current smokers smoking. And the flavor of the day seems to be the so-called safer cigarette. We don't know if it's possible to make a safer cigarette.

PHILIP HILTS (Author, Journalist): Cigarettes are always going to be there. They're not going away. You can't ban them. This cigarette may be one part of the solution.

NARRATOR: With cigarette companies under fire and millions of lives at risk, the stakes are high as the tobacco industry pursues the elusive goal of a safer cigarette.

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NARRATOR: Tobacco has been part of the American scene since long before Columbus reached these shores. It became one of the most profitable of all agricultural products. Tobacco put a struggling colony on the map, and helped finance the revolution.

Today, tobacco pays growers more than twenty times an acre what they would earn from grain.

Not long after the Civil War, an unemployed soldier, inspired by the sound of a Gregorian chant, created a new style of auctioning tobacco that continues to this day. A successful auctioneer can sell more than a hundred bales in an hour.

There's just enough time for a look and a feel before buyers bid with a gesture.

Today, U.S. tobacco sales are down—especially since the tobacco wars of the 1990s. Those were the years when investigators made public the secret inner workings of the cigarette industry.

MITCH ZELLER: For decades, the companies didn't tell the truth. They denied the health hazards associated with the product. They denied that the nicotine in cigarettes was addictive.

NARRATOR: Cigarette makers were forced to pay hundreds of billions of dollars in settlements. Then, to the surprise of many, they staged a dramatic turnaround. Part of the solution was replacing American tobacco with cheaper product from abroad. This, along with hefty price hikes, paid off the liabilities. Tobacco company profits are now at an all time high.

Industry critics are quick to point out the price of this success.

MITCH ZELLER: The statistics are frightening. The annual death toll is 420,000 Americans who die prematurely every year because of tobacco-related diseases. Or to put it even more graphically, imagine three fully-loaded 747s that crash and burn every single day with no survivors.

NARRATOR: Although smoking rates in the U.S. have been gradually declining for years, one in four adults still smokes, and throughout the developing world, cigarettes are a growth industry.

GREG CONNOLLY (Massachusetts Department of Public Health): Of all the people alive in this world today, we expect half a billion will be killed by cigarette smoking—two-thirds in poor countries. And of those two-thirds half are children under the age of 18.

NARRATOR: For the past forty years anti-smoking forces have lobbied without success for government control of what they say is the most dangerous and least regulated consumer product on the market.

PHILIP HILTS: The lobbyists for the companies were always there when the laws were being written, and they said, "You understand of course we have to be out of this one, right? We have to be out of this one." And they got written out.

NARRATOR: Now there's a new factor to consider. Across the industry, manufacturers large and small are preparing a new generation of what they call "reduced risk" products.

In 1990, Star Tobacco, a small manufacturer of discount cigarettes, was purchased by two entrepreneurs with no background in the cigarette business.

JONNIE WILLIAMS (Star Scientific): I called my partner up, and I said, "Frank, there's so much money changing hands in the tobacco business, and they're in so much trouble, there must be an opportunity here with this."

NARRATOR: The facility was aging, and there was no lab, but the new owners were looking for a competitive edge. They decided to try to create a safer cigarette.

Williams had no formal training in science. Undeterred, he started his own study of cigarette toxins.

Anyone who wants to make a safer cigarette must get familiar with the complex brew of toxic chemicals found in cigarette smoke. Surprisingly, nicotine is not a major one. It is, however, addictive.

Passed from the lungs to the bloodstream, nicotine enters the brain, where it interferes with the operation of the central nervous system. Every second, countless electrical impulses that originate in the brain travel along nerve pathways to regulate the body's function. Chemicals relay these messages from one nerve cell to another.

Launched by an electrical charge, the neurotransmitter acetyl choline jumps the gap between nerve cells and attaches to special receptor sites. This produces a new electrical charge, and the message is relayed along the chain.

When nicotine reaches the brain it mimics and overwhelms acetyl choline. Nicotine overstimulates the brain in a number of different areas.

JACK HENNINGFIELD (Addiction Expert, Johns Hopkins University): It can relax some muscles and activate other muscle systems. It releases hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline that can affect the way you feel. It can arouse you if you're sleepy. If you're nervous and anxious, the right amount of nicotine can help make you feel a little bit better and a little bit more relaxed.

NARRATOR: Eventually the brain adapts to the elevated level of activity. Any shortage of nicotine creates the discomfort and craving of addiction.

MITCH ZELLER: Once you're addicted to the nicotine, and you go on to smoke for decades, and put all those other poisonous compounds into your body. That's what shortens your life. Not the nicotine, but the repeated exposure to the other harmful compounds in smoke.

NARRATOR: Jonnie Williams found out that tobacco in the field has few toxins, but by the time of sale, it contains a deadly group of carcinogens called Tobacco Specific nitrosamines or TSNA's.

Something was happening to the tobacco while it was drying, during the week-long curing process that follows harvest.

By the 1980s, most Virginia tobacco was cured by sealing it in a prefabricated barn where it was heated with the exhaust from a propane gas fire. Some scientists believe that this oxygen-starved or "anaerobic" atmosphere causes bacteria in the tobacco to seek oxygen from other sources.

Tobacco is rich in nitrate compounds which carry three oxygen atoms. When the bacteria takes one it creates a new highly reactive nitrite compound that is drawn to tobacco's nicotine molecule.

The fruit of this marriage? Deadly nitrosamines, which can damage human DNA.

Williams thought he might prevent the nitrosamines from forming if he could somehow impede the bacteria in the tobacco.

JONNIE WILLIAMS: And I thought, "I'll put it in the microwave and see what happens if I try to cure this tobacco in the microwave."

At the end of two minutes, something very serious happened. As I pulled the tobacco out, and I had cured tobacco in two minutes.

NARRATOR: Tests carried out at the University of Kentucky found the microwave-cured tobacco to be significantly lower in nitrosamines than tobacco cured in a barn.

Eager to produce a commercial batch, Williams needed a way to expand production.

JONNIE WILLIAMS: Well, I had someone in my office go over to Wal-Mart and purchase 100 of these kitchen microwaves!

NARRATOR: Then, looking to the future, he commissioned a custom-built oven that filled a room. After curing in the giant microwave began, he received devastating news. The machine was in flames.

JONNIE WILLIAMS: And I came into this room, and I sat down, and I said to myself, "Now what are the other things that I can do?"

NARRATOR: He had already tested a variety of other curing techniques and found the forced hot air of a convection oven to be slow, but effective. Now he needed a larger test.

JONNIE WILLIAMS: So the only thing I could come up with with convection air was a tumble dryer.

Well I came back that next morning, took the tobacco out...overnighted it to the University of Kentucky. And not only were the nitrosamines low, but the tobacco quality was improved—the texture.

NARRATOR: Williams conceived a grand plan to change the way Virginia tobacco was cured. He built high-tech curing barns that worked much like giant convection ovens, forcing clean, heated air through the tobacco.

He gave the barns to farmers who agreed to sell him their cured tobacco.

The first "Star Cure" harvest was ready in 1998. But there were no takers.

JONNIE WILLIAMS: You know I thought the entire industry would seize upon this. I'm hopeful, like any entrepreneur would be. I figured out how to do this. It works. This fixes a problem for you. Only, no one was there. And I didn't understand it.

NARRATOR: One company did come forward. In April of 1999, Brown & Williamson, makers of Lucky Strikes and Kools, offered to buy 1.2 million pounds of Star's low nitrosamine tobacco. But the good news was only good for a day.

JONNIE WILLIAMS: As soon as Brown & Williamson announced...within 24 hours another company made a public statement that they had just discovered how to do this in their laboratory.

NARRATOR: The giant R.J. Reynolds tobacco company said that nitrosamines were not the result of an anaerobic environment, but rather were formed from compounds in the propane gas exhaust used to heat the barns.

Either or both explanations could be correct, and both called for similar solutions. Reynolds' less costly approach was to retrofit existing gas-fired barns with clean burning heat exchangers.

Soon RJR was joined by Philip Morris, the industry leader.

DAVID TOWNSEND (R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company): I think Reynolds did make it go very quickly across the entire industry as opposed to Star, which I think was looking for a competitive advantage. We didn't see a competitive advantage, and we thought it was the right thing to do. We decided to implement it, and we wanted, in fact, it implemented across the whole industry.

NARRATOR: Whether the Star patent was violated is yet to be legally determined.

Late in 2000, Star, now Star Scientific, introduced its own cigarette called Advance—the first to be made with low nitrosamine Virginia tobacco. The company also had a new Chief Operating Officer, Paul Perito, a Harvard trained lawyer and Washington insider.

PAUL PERITO (Star Scientific): Neither we, nor anybody else, can manufacture a "safe" cigarette. We do believe that we can manufacture a cigarette that does deliver less toxins, and we are hopeful that this will someday be shown through scientific research. It will take years, because the onset of cancer takes years.

GREG CONNOLLY: Star Tobacco? It's an intriguing company. I think if anything it's a needle in the side of the big guys, making them do things they wouldn't normally do unless you had Star out there. And what it does is it provides a healthy dose of competition for safer products. Whether or not they're really safer, I think, is the big $64,000 question. Keep in mind we have 42 other carcinogens in cigarette smoke.

NARRATOR: The reason cigarettes have so many toxins is that they burn. Any organic material like tobacco is chemically complex. Combustion increases that complexity enormously. With heat peaking at 1000 degrees centigrade, the 300 or so compounds that make up tobacco explode into over five thousand. Tobacco behind the burning cone heats up and releases gases, including carbon monoxide, one of the deadliest components of automobile exhaust.

Drawing on the cigarette pulls the gases and microscopic particles of incomplete combustion called tar, into the mouth and lungs. Over time, they wreak havoc on the delicate lungs and cardiovascular systems.

First, carbon monoxide passes through the lungs into the blood where it binds so vigorously with hemoglobin that it displaces the oxygen these cells normally carry to nurture tissue throughout the body. The heart is forced to work harder, which can damage the circulatory system.

The gases also devastate the tiny hair-like filaments along the airways, called cilia. Normally, they move contaminants out of the lungs. Without them, the tar remains, causing lung cells to multiply and tissue to thicken. Gradually, the lungs lose elasticity and chronic bronchitis and emphysema can develop.

And finally, there's cancer. Carcinogens, like nitrosamines, interact with DNA, creating mutant genes that cause the uncontrolled cell growth that is the hallmark of cancer.

DOCTOR: You won't find it on the death certificate, but one vital factor in Jim's death was this.

NARRATOR: The relationship between smoking and health did not become clear until the early 1950s. Smoking had been suspect for years, but new studies revealed a statistical correlation between smoking and lung cancer. Then it was found that mice painted with cigarette tar developed tumors. The tobacco industry was caught off guard.

PHILIP HILTS: The stock dropped immediately. People started quitting immediately—within the first week after that paper. The salesmen were panicked. So the companies got their heads together and had a secret meeting in New York to decide, "What do we do? How do we handle this? We can't just sit and watch the business slide from under us."

NARRATOR: A massive public relations campaign was launched to raise questions about the validity of the scientific studies and to promote positive notions about smoking.

PHILIP HILTS: At the same time they knew there was a problem, and so they were going to work on that secretly. If there was something in a cigarette that caused cancer, they wanted to get it out.

ANNOUNCER: This is the P. Lorillard plant in Greensboro, North Carolina, the world's most modern cigarette factory.

NARRATOR: While scientists at the major tobacco companies struggled to identify and remove carcinogens, the small and struggling Lorillard Tobacco Company found a quick and marketable approach to the problem. In 1952, Lorillard launched Kents, featuring a rarity in those days, a filter tip. By capturing tar particles before they reached the lungs, the filter would seem to create a safer smoke.

ANNOUNCER: If you're that one out of every three smokers who is affected by nicotine and tars, then Kent's Micronite filter is the one answer for you. In fact, it's the greatest health protection you can get in a cigarette.

Now, I want you to watch this.

NARRATOR: Fibers of a special filter material were said to be so thin they could trap tar particles as small as one micron—one two-thousandth of an inch.

ANNOUNCER: Look. There it is: an ugly stain from the hot, harsh irritants that come right through this other filter. But through Kent's Micronite filter, there's hardly a trace.

NARRATOR: Unfortunately, the new filter had a unique problem of its own.

JOHN SLADE (University of Medicine & Dentistry, NJ): The filtering agent in Kent was crocidolite asbestos, which was known at the time to be a cause of cancer. In 1954, the Lorillard Company commissioned several studies to see if asbestos fibers ended up in the cigarette smoke. Each of the labs that reported back to the company that indeed, there was asbestos in the smoke.

NARRATOR: The tests were kept secret. Sales set industry records.

ANNOUNCER: During the past year Kent cigarettes showed a sales increase of over 20 billion cigarettes. This is the greatest gain in popularity ever recorded by any filter cigarette in any year.

NARRATOR: Three years later Lorillard introduced "New Kents" with a new Micronite filter, this time asbestos-free.

JOHN SLADE: In recent years, there have been a number of case of mesothelioma, a cancer that is essentially only caused by asbestos exposure, in people whose only credible exposure to asbestos was the original Kent cigarettes that they smoked in the 1950s.

NARRATOR: As Kents took off, a more sophisticated effort to selectively remove toxins was pursued by the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company, makers of Chesterfields and L&Ms. In the early 1960s, scientists involved in a secret project, code-named "XA," reported that mixing tobacco with a combination of chemicals altered the chemistry of combustion, reducing carcinogens in the smoke. A key ingredient was palladium, a metal commonly used in automobile catalytic converters.

By the mid-1970s, the product was ready for market, but it would never get there.

Lawyers throughout the industry came down hard on Liggett. They said a "safer" cigarette would imply that something was wrong with those already on the market, and would lead to endless, devastating liability suits. The XA project was quietly abandoned, as were similar efforts by other tobacco companies.

MITCH ZELLER: And time after time—and this is the 1960s, the 1970s, the early 1980s—each time one of these scientists came up with a modification that could have reduced risk, they saw their efforts either scuttled or put on a shelf. And in some instances, they saw themselves being let go by the companies.

NARRATOR: Liggett & Myers was purchased in 1985 by the maverick financier Bennett LeBow who added it to his roster of companies, the Vector group.

BENNETT LEBOW (Vector Group): Well, financially it's very good. I mean, the profit margins are very high. And...I hate to say it...the customers are somewhat addicted. So on that basis you can look at it as financially being very attractive.

NARRATOR: Interest in the abandoned XA cigarette was revived when Dr. John Bunch was hired—the company's first scientist in years.

A longtime secretary suggested that Dr. Bunch examine records of the project. He managed to retrieve a batch of prototype cigarettes in a storage freezer, and brought in a senior chemist from the University of North Carolina who had been his teacher.

DR. ROBERT BEREMAN (Vector Tobacco): I was asked to read the patents. And I was surprised that nobody had followed up on it, if it was as good as the patents claimed to be.

NARRATOR: Tar from the prototype cigarettes was collected on a smoking machine. Carcinogenic compounds were extracted and their quantities compared to normal tobacco.

DR. ROBERT BEREMAN: And we saw some evidence that was interesting. Clearly, something was happening.

NARRATOR: Working in the old Liggett lab, Dr. Bereman and a handful of energetic young scientists analyzed the original XA formula and set out to improve it. Palladium and other additives were used to alter the burn at the molecular level in a way that would trap or prevent the formation of harmful compounds. In this case, the target was a deadly group of carcinogens known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.

These carcinogens are created during combustion when reactive compounds called radicals, created by the heat, combine to form harmful PAH compounds like the solvent benzene, naphthalene, and benzo(a)pyrene.

DR. ROBERT BEREMAN: It is a very complex chemistry. We recognize that if we change one reaction we do affect something else. If you try a catalyst that would remove the PAHs, you may be increasing something else that you have to worry about then again.

NARRATOR: As it turned out, the chemicals that reduced PAHs produced an increase in nitrosamines, the carcinogens that can form during the curing of tobacco. Vector scientists went to work on a new additive to reduce these compounds.

DR. ROBERT BEREMAN: It's like working on any puzzle that you don't know the answer to. If you know the answer it's no fun. And it's exciting, and I think we're going to do it.

NARRATOR: Vector's new cigarette, Omni, is scheduled to reach the market this year.

BENNETT LEBOW: Here's a little company, Vector or Liggett here, that we've...over the years...past 10 years, have had one scientist. And I feel in the past three years we've developed some major breakthroughs in the tobacco business. And you've got to sit back and ask yourself, "The other companies have 400 scientists, 500 scientists each; what have they been doing the past 20 or 30 years?"

BELLBOY: "Call for Philip Morris."

NARRATOR: The U.S. tobacco industry is dominated by three giants: Philip Morris, maker of the world's most popular cigarette, Marlboro; the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and Brown & Williamson, part of the British American Tobacco Company.

Science and technology have played a key role in their success.

The cigarette was a handmade agricultural item until a rolling machine transformed it into a mass-market product late in the 19th century. A modern factory can turn out more than half a billion cigarettes a day.

The product is a high-tech blend of Virginia, Burley and Oriental tobacco leaves. These are combined with shredded tobacco sheet, a paper like material made out of scraps and stems. And there are chemical additives by the dozen.

These are used to alter flavor, burn, even nicotine absorption. While additive-free cigarettes are often thought to be safer, the combustion of tobacco alone produces most of what's harmful.

Today's cigarettes deliver much less tar and nicotine than those of a few decades ago. The effort to reduce tar was stimulated by the 1964 Surgeon General's report, which provided government validation of the link between illness and smoking.

MITCH ZELLER: When the industry saw that smokers were increasingly health-conscious, the industry felt that it had no choice but to try to come up with some kind of modification to the product that could suggest to smokers—if the companies couldn't make it express in their ads—that the product was safer.

NARRATOR: It was accepted throughout the public health community that the toxicity of cigarette smoke was related to the quantity of tar and nicotine taken into the lungs. A relatively simple way to reduce the dose was to reduce the amount of tobacco in a cigarette, and to speed up the burn with chemicals. More porous paper and the addition of vent holes around the filter further thinned the smoke by mixing it with air. And so the "low tar" or "light" cigarette was born.

MITCH ZELLER: And they didn't have to say it was safer. They knew that smokers believed that light cigarettes were less harmful and less addictive.

NARRATOR: So that brands could be compared, the Federal Trade Commission developed a standardized procedure to measure tar and nicotine. Tar is a gross measurement of everything in the smoke except nicotine and water.

Figures from the smoking machines spurred vigorous competition for lower numbers. Between 1965 and 1980 average nicotine and tar yields were brought down from 37 to 14 milligrams of tar and from two to one milligram of nicotine.

Today, lights make up the majority of all cigarettes sold.

But once again things haven't turned out as they were expected to. People, it has been found, don't smoke like machines. As tar and nicotine levels drop, smokers smoke more, and the design of the cigarette makes it easier.

JACK HENNINGFIELD: The cigarette companies, they realized that if you didn't get a certain amount of tar, it wouldn't taste good. And if you didn't get enough nicotine, you'd go into nicotine withdrawal. What the companies did was make the cigarettes with greater elasticity or flexibility. And flexibility is a word that you see in a lot of the tobacco industry literature: a flexible dosing system. And if you watch a smoker that's trying to get more nicotine, they push it in a little bit more, they suck a little harder. And when they get down near the end, they're holding it, they're covering up those holes.

NARRATOR: The results have been disastrous for public health.

GREG CONNOLLY: If you look at the history of the tobacco industry, it's a very, very bad one. The industry came out with light cigarettes in the '70s, and did we get a reduction in heart disease? No. People only smoked more intensely and more deeply and died at the same rates of heart disease. And as people suck deeper, the cancer only went from high up here to down here. There was no change in lung cancer. So the industry cannot be driving the train. The train has to be driven by regulatory authorities who use science to establish meaningful controls over product design.

NARRATOR: Today, half of Philip Morris' research and development budget is said to be focused on reduced-risk products. It's an effort that was already underway in the mid-1970s when secret work began on a radically different strategy to clean up cigarette smoke.

CLIFTON LILLY (Philip Morris U.S.A.): We found out very early, from just doing experiments on heating stuff at various rates—fast, slow—that tobacco actually doesn't just break down entirely and it's gone.

NARRATOR: The toxic compounds are produced at different temperatures. Some of the worst, like PAHs and carbon monoxide, occur at the highest. Cliff Lilly's team at Philip Morris developed a variety of experimental devices to control the heat used to vaporize tobacco.

CLIFTON LILLY: And we tried lots of things. And some sound silly at this time in my life. Flash bulbs. A flash bulb cigarette I once really liked. One would put a flash bulb in the front of the cigarette, hit a switch, the flash would go off, and you would get a very nice puff coming from heated tobacco.

There were a number of that type of thing—coils of wire that we had hooked to a battery and you heated the tobacco with the coil of wire. You walked a very narrow path. If you put too much heat in the tobacco caught on fire.

And then you had a very sophisticated regular cigarette. Might as well have lit it with a match or a lighter. If you put too little heat in, it was like toast coming out of your toaster. You really got no smoke, and it smelled toasted. And so it was very, very difficult to control the amount of heat.

NARRATOR: But efforts to create an electrically-heated cigarette were cut back, due to technological limitations or possibly the threat of litigation.

In the meantime, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company had gone to work on its own heated product. The maker of Camels and Winstons hoped the company could reverse its declining fortunes with a revolutionary new "reduced hazard" product that barely used tobacco at all.

DAVID TOWNSEND (R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company): One experiment that was done early on was just to determine how we could deliver smoke that was completely non-toxic. So we devised some cigarettes that were made of glass for demonstration purposes. They had glycerin coated on the inside of the glass. Glycerin is simply a compound that will evaporate or vaporize when heated, and then condense very readily to form a smoke, to form particles suspended in a gas.

So then the challenge was to take that basic system and then make that acceptable to smokers, by developing some type of tobacco flavor or tobacco taste, well as provide some nicotine to the smoker.

NARRATOR: The new product, called Premier, would use a unique technology to deliver the nicotine, but it was designed to look like a traditional cigarette.

JOHN SLADE: Premier was an interesting device. It looks like a cigarette, but the see this white ring? That's fiberglass. And the black dot is a fuel element. And if I take out the fuel element with these tweezers, it's attached to this aluminum cylinder. The aluminum cylinder, in turn, contains little beads of alumina that have nicotine and glycerin on them. And these beads are heated by the fuel element when it's lit. And nicotine and glycerin vaporizes off of these beads, and then is condensed into an aerosol that can deliver nicotine deep into the lungs.

DAVID TOWNSEND: Because the development of Premier was so different, we did have to develop new flavor systems. We worked with all the major flavor houses in the world. It turns out that was an exceedingly difficult project—to design those types of flavor systems.

NARRATOR: One problem was that until the flavor capsule heated up, the only taste was sulfur from the match, and burning charcoal. The effort to fix Premier's taste was documented in a best-selling book and television movie.

SCIENTIST : Now, eight percent of that group sampled at least one Premier to give us their opinion of the product.

JOHNSON: Bottom line?

SCIENTIST: Well, of all the groups we tested, the response to Premier was just about uniform.

JOHNSON: Unh hunh?

EXECUTIVE: They all said that it tasted like [expletive].

JOHNSON: Like [expletive]?

SCIENTIST: "[expletive]" was the consensus. Yes, sir.

NARRATOR: Premier was introduced in the autumn of 1988 and came with instructions to use a butane lighter. The effort had been the most ambitious yet to create a reduced-risk product. Reynolds expected applause, but that's not what happened.

ANNOUNCER: The American Medical Association said, "these are not cigarettes, but a sophisticated drug delivery system which gives smokers strong hits of nicotine, a drug the AMA says is so addictive it wants smokeless cigarettes banned."

NARRATOR: Consumers were equally unenthusiastic with what was dubbed a smokeless cigarette.

SMOKER 1: Nothing. Zero. It's like smoking blackboard chalk.

SMOKER 2: What kind of cigarette is this?

SMOKER 3: Another first for American technology. No wonder the Japanese are trembling.

ANNOUNCER: R.J. Reynolds has announced it is bailing out of its smokeless cigarette project, but then those smokers who tried Premier apparently didn't like it anyway.

NARRATOR: After only a few months, Reynolds withdrew Premier. But the story wasn't over.

PHILIP HILTS: In the meanwhile, what had emerged was the secondhand smoke issue. There was, across the country, a wave of local ordinances: "You can't smoke in public buildings. You can't smoke in public places. You can't smoke here and there." And they were sitting there with this product, and it occurred to them that if this product didn't produce a lot of smoke as well, you would solve this other problem.

NARRATOR: It took six years, and a total cost of nearly a billion dollars, but Premier was reborn as Eclipse. The new design did away with the aluminum flavor capsule. Instead the burning charcoal tip would heat a column of sheet tobacco laced with glycerin. Eclipse was presented as a smoking alternative that may present less risk for certain diseases, including cancer. The public health community was cautious.

JACK HENNINGFIELD: Does this technology have the potential to reduce toxicity? The answer is, "Yes, it has the potential." Does this particular product reduce the toxicity? The answer is, "I don't know." Because the only information I have is information that was bought and paid for by R.J. Reynolds.

NARRATOR: An independent study commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health showed that when Eclipse was compared to two ultra-low tar cigarettes, Eclipse had higher yields of several toxins, especially when the charcoal tip burned hot from heavy smoking.

Reynolds' saga was closely followed by the competition. In the late 1980s, Philip Morris revived its efforts to electrically control the burn of a cigarette. Fifty staffers were moved to an industrial park and given the charge to bring a product to market.

GRIER FLEISCHHAUER (Philip Morris U.S.A.): We decided that what we should do is replace the burning end of a cigarette with a battery, a heater and electronics.

What I have here is the first attempt. The consumer draws on the cigarette just as you would a normal cigarette. My mission was to make a design that really worked and could be consumer friendly, and just take it to the step where we could commercialize that concept.

NARRATOR: The heater's electronics would have the power of an Apple II computer, capable of sensing a puff and instantly heating a metal blade to a precise temperature for a specified duration, producing little second-hand smoke or ashes.

A cigarette of unique design was required for the heater. Beneath the paper, a heavy cylinder of sheet tobacco would be singed by the heater blades. The device would dramatically change the smoking ritual, so various types were auditioned. In the end, the size of the batteries and electronics precluded many of the designs.

GRIER FLEISCHHAUER: This one is our current product that we are selling in the Richmond market and Osaka, Japan. It gives you your battery capacity. It provides you a cigarette icon that monitors your cigarette, and fits pretty nicely in your palm. We would ideally like to reduce this and make it a smaller product. The smoker would insert their cigarette, fully depress it, and the lighter actually senses that we have a cigarette and turns on. So now the consumer is ready to smoke. The consumer places the cigarette on their lips, draws on it and, voila, smoke is produced.

NARRATOR: The new smoking system, called Accord, is now available in test markets. And although sales have been modest, Philip Morris continues its development.

JOHN SLADE: I don't think Accord is a finished product. I think Accord is a marker for the public and for the regulators and for Congress to see that Philip Morris is in the game, too. And Accord is simply too awkward and too improbable in my mind to take off as a credible product.

NARRATOR: Determining whether Accord, or any of the other new products, actually are safer is a highly complex process.

The Institute of Medicine recently spent a year studying just how such determinations might be made. In its report, the institute proposed that to assess comparative risk these products be tested by an independent agency, much as any new drug would be, on cells, on animals, and humans—a process requiring at least two years.

The tobacco industry historically opposed federal regulation of its products. In 1999, Philip Morris made a dramatic change of course. For the first time the company publicly acknowledged the health risks of smoking, the addictive nature of nicotine, and not long after, called for oversight of reduced-risk products by the Food and Drug Administration. Such authority would require congressional legislation.

DAVID BERAN (Philip Morris U.S.A.): We need to reach out to the public health community...the federal government, and create a dialogue where we can reach a common ground to define reduced-risk products. And just as importantly, how does one go about communicating about such a product? As a responsible company, we think it's appropriate through regulation to allow those adult smokers who continue to choose to smoke to have the alternative of a lower-risk product if one's available.

NARRATOR: Tobacco control advocates were surprised by Philip Morris's new direction, and were wary.

GREG CONNOLLY: What the industry would love is to have business as usual for the conventional cigarettes. Have the kids start smoking Camels or Marlboros. Do the same aggressive advertising that shows it as being macho, fun, socially acceptable. And then when the person turns 30 or 40 or 50 and starts coughing up, you know, give him Eclipse or Accord, so they don't go to the court and sue them. Or they can tell a group of jurors, "We gave the consumer a choice."

NARRATOR: Before reduced-risk products appeared on the horizon, the strategy of the health community was straightforward: to discourage smoking across the board. Now the situation is far more complex.

MITCH ZELLER: I am not a knee-jerk opponent of safer cigarettes, if the science could demonstrate, in fact, that harm had been reduced. But it's very tricky. If there is a genuinely safer cigarette, would it create a disincentive for existing tobacco users to quit? That's unintended consequence number one. And number two, would it create a new incentive for a non-smoker, or someone who had already quit, to want to smoke again, thinking that they don't have to worry about any of the health consequences of tobacco use?

NARRATOR: Abstinence will remain the only safe response to cigarettes. But if tobacco companies are to market so-called " reduced-risk" products, should their claims be verified?

JOHN SLADE: For the last 50 years, the tobacco companies have used the trappings of public health and public relations to maintain sales, to increase sales...through filters, through low-tar. Now they're trying it through what they call reduced risk. And they've never been accountable to a regulatory agency as other consumer products are held accountable. And it's time to decide if tobacco products are going to continue being outside the regulatory system, not accountable to anybody for what they do and how they make their products.

What goes into this deceptively simple product? On NOVA's Website take a closer look at the carefully engineered elements of a conventional cigarette. Then compare them to two safer cigarettes, at or America Online, keyword PBS.

To order this show or any other NOVA program for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.

Next time on NOVA, "You can do anything you want with these human embryos." Welcome to the reproductive revolution. "We were able to reconstruct an egg, but then we got into trouble." Have we gone too far? Eighteen Ways Too Make A Baby.

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Search for a Safe Cigarette

Written, Produced and Directed by
Carl Charlson

Narrated by
Liev Schreiber

Jackie Mow

Edited by
William Lattanzi

Associate Producer
Olivia Reeves

Dulce "Candy" Gonzalez
Tom Hurwitz
Boyd Estus
Erich Roland

The B.K. Music Group

Sound Recordists
Len Schmitz
Peter Miller
Sanjay Mehta

Assistant Camera
Jeffrey Victor
Max Fisher
Jill Tufts

Molecular Renderings
Ronald N. Perry
Sarah F. Frisken
Mistubishi Electric Research Laboratories

Animated Neuroscience: The Actions of Nicotine, Cocaine and Marijuana on the Brain
Gayle Gross de Núñez
Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom

Jeff Johnson
Hybrid Medical

Animation Online Editor
Ed Ham

Mark Kueper

Jay Kemp
Mark Casey
Frank Merino
Guy Holt

Production Assistant
Robert Manooch

Archival Material
ABCNews Videosource
British Broadcasting Corporation
F.I.L.M. Archives
History of Advertising Archives, U. of British Columbia
The Image Bank
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
MacDonald and Associates
NBC News Archives
Philip Morris U.S.A.
R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company
Video Resource

Clark Overton/Phototake
VU/O. Ouerbach

Dan Zegart

Special Thanks
Australia's National Tobacco Campaign, Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care
Johnson and Childs
Labstat International, Inc.

NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
Mason Daring
Martin Brody
Michael Whalen

Assistant Editor
Rachael Clark

Sound Editor
Rob Todd

Audio Mix
Heart Punch Studios
Country Post

Post Production Online Editor
Mark Steele

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

Production Secretaries
Queene Coyne
Linda Callahan

Jonathan Renes
Diane Buxton
Katie Kemple

Senior Researcher
Ethan Herberman

Unit Managers
Sarah Goldman
Jessica Maher
Sharon Winsett

Nancy Marshall

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko

Business Manager
Laurie Cahalane

Post Production Assistant
Patrick Carey

Associate Producer, Post Production
Nathan Gunner

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editors
David Eells
Rebecca Nieto

Supervising Producer
Lisa D'Angelo

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A NOVA Production for WGBH/Boston.

© 2001 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved


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