Smoking Guns II: Nicotine Manipulation

Key documents used by the Minnesota state attorney general's office in its recent litigation show that the tobacco companies altered nicotine concentrations in cigarettes and that they varied those levels to achieve market share.

A 1963 memo from a Brown & Williamson researcher to a B.A.T. Co. official answers the question, "How might the level of [nicotine and sugars] be varied to win consumer preference for our brands?" The researcher concludes that "a rough examination of sales patterns would indicate the probability of a correlation between consumer acceptance and nicotine level," and reports that "we have a research program in progress to obtain, by genetic means, any level of nicotine desired."

"I think we can say even now that we can regulate, fairly precisely, the nicotine and sugar levels to almost any desired level management might require," the researcher concludes <MN10856>.

Brown & Williamson later discovered methods of genetic manipulation and added the resulting high-nicotine tobacco (Y1) to their cigarettes. An undated Brown & Williamson document notes "Y1 Product Unique genetically engineered tobacco delivering more taste/satisfaction at a lower tar level versus competition. Achieved through increased nicotine content versus traditional tobaccos. Lights/Ultra products contain 10% Y1" <MN13671>.

Companies also found other methods of increasing nicotine content. A Philip Morris document from 1966 reports that adding ammonia to cigarettes enhanced nicotine delivery by raising the pH level <MN3685>. A 1973 study from the Lorillard company concludes, "The smoke pH for Kool and Marlboro are 7.12 and 6.98 respectively confirming the relationship between high smoke pH and cigarette sales increase" <MN10005>.

With Full Knowledge
The Minnesota documents also show that the tobacco companies considered nicotine a drug, and cigarettes a convenient delivery device. These categorizations have been vigorously denied by the industry as the tobacco companies seek to avoid regulation of cigarettes by the Food and Drug Administration.

Recognizing cigarettes as a drug, one undated B.A.T. "marketing scenario" states: "A cigarette as a ‘drug' administration system for public use has very very significant advantages: 1) Speed. Within 10 seconds of starting to smoke, nicotine is available in the brain. Other ‘drugs' such as marijuana, amphetamines, and alcohol are slower and may be mood dependent" <MN10683>.

A 1972 RJR memo noted that "In a sense, the tobacco industry may be thought of as being a specialized, highly ritualized and stylized segment of the pharmaceutical industry." The same memo concludes, "Our industry is then based upon design, manufacture and sale of attractive dosage forms of nicotine, and our company's position in our industry is determined by our ability to produce dosage forms of nicotine which have more overall value, tangible or intangible, to the consumer than those of our competitors. Happily for the tobacco industry, nicotine is both habituating and unique" <MN12408>.

Naturally, this discussion of cigarettes as a type of drug led a Philip Morris scientist to ask in 1969, "Do we really want to tout cigarette smoke as a drug? It is, of course, but there are dangerous F.D.A. implications to having such conceptualization go beyond these walls" <MN10539>.

The Not So Missing Link
For years the tobacco industry has claimed that smoking has not been conclusively linked to lung cancer. The Minnesota documents show that the industry internally acknowledged such a link and knew a lot more than it publicly admitted.

Companies were certainly aware of cancer research being done all over the world, as in 1958 B.A.T. scientists visited the United States and Canada and found "With one exception, the individuals whom we met believed that smoking causes lung cancer if by ‘causation' we mean any chain of events which leads finally to lung cancer and which involves smoking as an indispensable link" <MN11028>.

The industry's own research and its sponsored research gave credence to this view. A 1959 RJR document reported that the RJR Company Research Department "corroborated the published findings. Some thirty-odd polycyclic hydrocarbons have since been similarly characterized in these laboratories. Of these, eight are carcinogenic to mouse epidermis. Cholanthrene, a potent carcinogen, is one of three not yet reported by other investigators" <MN12418>. A 1961 report from Arthur D. Little Inc. to Liggett & Myers notes on the front page that "There are biologically active materials present in cigarette tobacco. These are cancer causing, cancer promoting, poisonous, stimulating, pleasurable and flavorful" <MN11561>.

No-Search Research
Claims that industry research was directed at finding the truth about the causes of cancer are also belied by the internal documents. A 1970 Philip Morris memo from research director Dr. Helmut Wakeham reads, "It has been stated that [the Center for Tobacco Research, CTR] is a program to find out ‘the truth about smoking and health.' What is truth to one is false to another. CTR and the Industry have publicly and frequently denied what others find as ‘truth.' Let's face it. We are interested in evidence which we believe denies the allegation that cigarette smoking causes diseases. Both lawyers and scientists will agree that this task is extremely difficult, if not impossible" <MN11586>.

In fact, the main purpose of CTR seems not to have been scientific fact-finding at all. Minutes of a 1978 meeting of company vice presidents indicate that the CTR "was set up as an industry ‘shield.'" According to the minutes, it was suggested that the industry "might need to have ‘baskets' into which research projects can be categorized and supported. There is a ‘CTR basket' which must be maintained for ‘PR' purposes" <PM2045752106/2110>.

And, much of industry research was not directed by scientists. A 1978 handwritten memo from the CEO of Lorillard states, "We have once again ‘abdicated' the scientific research directional management of the industry to the ‘Lawyers' with virtually no involvement on the part of scientific or business management side of business" <MN10165>.

Further evidence that scientists were at the mercy of the attorneys is found in an extract from a Tobacco Research Council Letter dated March 24, 1969. The author of the letter "recently had a discussion with [Professor J.H.] Burn [a scientific consultant] about the position and he told me that Ed. Jacob [an industry lawyer] arrived on his doorstep in Oxford one day, apparently without any previous appointment, sat down with Burn and got Burn to make a certain number of amendments to his paper there and then; [sic] pocketed the only copy of what is apparently to be the final draft, and departed" <BW680243533>.

Lawyers monitored research out of fear that scientific documents could hurt the industry in litigation. A 1990 agenda prepared by in-house counsel for B.A.T. and titled "Research Documents," deals with "Concern about volume of research documentation spread around the Group Discovery. Difficulties faced by author company in explaining documents in a foreign court." Proposed precautions include restricting "current flow of research related documents by ensuring that all telexes, letters, facsimiles, minutes and memoranda sent by scientists in one research centre to scientists in an overseas research centre go through and are approved by the Head of Research in the sending company. Improve quality of documents by educating scientists in each research centre about document writing/document creation. Regular lawyer reviews and audits of scientific documents produced in each company. Arrange a system to ensure that all research related conference minutes involving representatives of more than one Group company are vetted by the lawyer for the company issuing the minutes before the minutes are sent out" <BW681511202/1203>.

Even favorable research that was conducted by the industry was not necessarily published as the work of industry scientists. A handwritten draft for a position paper on research to be conducted by companies belonging to the German Association of the Cigarette Industry, the VdC, states, "Should any results be published, arrangements should be made to publish them by scientists outside the industry so that no doubts can be raised" <PM0000017644/7647>.

-- David Tannenbaum