Cigarette giants take safety first approach

Tobacco companies BAT and Philip Morris are preparing to launch ‘safer’ cigarettes, but advertising restrictions and opposition are already causing manufacturers problems, says Daniel Thomas

Smokers could become less of an endangered species in the future if tobacco companies press ahead with plans to bring to market a new generation of supposedly “safer” cigarettes.

The so-called “potentially reduced exposure products” (PREPs), long seen as the holy grail of the cigarette industry, could be only months away, according to industry sources. But there are a myriad of problems obstructing the launch, including the forthcoming ban on point-of-purchase (PoP) advertising due to be implemented in December.

But the tobacco giants are undeterred. Philip Morris has argued in a written submission to the High Court that the Government’s proposed ban on PoP advertising would prevent the company from communicating the benefits of its PREPs (MW last week). The tobacco industry used the same argument to no effect when it was faced with the ban on tobacco advertising.

Amanda Sandford, research director for anti-smoking campaign group ASH, claims that the Philip Morris product could be launched in the UK as early as this year and will be a variant of an existing brand, most probably Marlboro.

Sandford adds that British American Tobacco (BAT) and Philip Morris are ahead of the field but all the major cigarette companies are developing variants of their own.

Tobacco industry sources say the products are likely to offer reduced carcinogen levels. While it is nicotine that is addictive, it is the smoke that kills, owing to the production of as many as 250 carcinogenic or toxic elements and up to 5,000 chemicals.

Philip Morris claims it does not have a product ready to market yet but stresses PREPs are the main focus of its research. Imperial Tobacco and BAT also admit that they are developing modified versions of their cigarettes that potentially have a “reduced risk”.

A BAT spokesman claims the company has been searching for a safer cigarette formula for more than 40 years without success. He adds that “any suggestion we knew before how to make a ‘safer’ cigarette but did not exploit it is absurd”.

One former BAT executive says there was little impetus to develop such a product before 1999 – the date when Philip Morris finally admitted smoking could lead to an increased chance of cancer – as such products would have implied that other tobacco products were dangerous.

Sandford believes that the tobacco industry’s move to develop safer cigarettes is “little more than making very dangerous products a little less dangerous”.

She warns that the tobacco companies will have to exercise care in their marketing of “safer” cigarettes so that they won’t reflect too badly on their existing products. The anti-smoking campaigner also calls for the regulatory authorities to take steps to prevent tobacco companies from making any overt health claims about the products.

One tobacco industry insider agrees there will never be a totally safe cigarette: “It is like saying it is safer jumping from the 40th floor of a 60-floor building rather than the top.”

He says the real motivation behind producing PREPs is to make the tobacco industry appear in a better light by being seen to be pursuing corporate social responsibility commitments.

“It makes the tobacco companies look good, and generates positive PR for a change. At the same time, it keeps potential quitters in the market as they will turn to these supposedly safer cigarettes rather than give up.”

There are already “potentially less risk” cigarettes available in the US. RJ Reynolds sells a cigarette called Eclipse that it claims may be less risky by heating, rather than burning, tobacco, while Liggett Vector Brands sells Quest, a brand that features bio-engineered tobacco with lower nicotine, and Omni, which it claims offers reduced exposure to carcinogens.

There have been other attempts at creating safer versions of cigarettes in the past. Discarded ideas have included adding filtering compounds to cigarettes, which might themselves have posed health risks, while design modifications to filters were found to adversely effect taste.

Perhaps the biggest move to offer a safer cigarette was the launch of lower nicotine and tar “light” products, which were originally claimed to be less dangerous than normal cigarettes. This, says one source, was soon disproved as evidence emerged that smokers “compensate” for the lower levels of nicotine by inhaling deeper. The tobacco insider adds: “Philip Morris must make sure the new products are backed with the right science this time.”

Indeed, establishing the scientific perimeters for what constitutes a “safer” cigarette is posing a problem for the tobacco companies. One obstacle to the launch, says a Philip Morris spokeswoman, is the need for a suitable regulatory environment that recognises the scientific claims behind products.

“We would want a regulatory framework in place before our launch that would allow us to claim its benefits and tell us how we can communicate them. The Government needs to say what constitutes a reduced-risk product.”

But a Department of Health spokesman says there is no move to creating guidance on what could claim to be a reduced-risk cigarette: “We regard all cigarettes as harmful. We would look at any new products and their claims but have not been asked to yet in this case.” University College London director of tobacco studies Professor Robert West says it could be a long time before authorities define a “safer” cigarette, if only because it takes time for diseases to materialise.

West says it is possible to produce a product that is lower in certain carcinogens, such as nitrosamines, but it has yet to be proven if this will offer any actual benefit.

The production of reduced-risk cigarettes will be futile unless they are also palatable to smokers, West adds. The “safer” cigarettes launched in the US have failed to make much of an impact because the smoke is said to be unpleasant.

While a safer cigarette is in everyone’s best interest, it seems that smokers will only go for reduced-risk cigarettes if they taste, look and feel like their existing brand. Smokers do not smoke for their health, after all.

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