WASHINGTON — The war against tobacco escalated Wednesday with the release of documents that appear to contradict the industry's oft-stated insistence that it does not manipulate nicotine levels in cigarettes.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), Capitol Hill's leading tobacco critic and chairman of a key House subcommittee, released a 1981 report written by a tobacco company executive describing how higher nicotine levels can be achieved in cigarettes by using specific blends of tobacco, and suggesting that these blends should be added to low-tar cigarettes to significantly enhance their nicotine content.
Yet, this same official, Alexander W. Spears, vice chairman and chief operating officer for Lorillard Tobacco Co., said in congressional testimony on March 25 that "we do not set nicotine levels for particular brands of cigarettes."
The issue has been an especially controversial one because of the highly addictive nature of nicotine.
"Once again tobacco industry representatives have not only withheld information but they have misrepresented the truth," Waxman said at a press conference.
But Spears said in a statement that Waxman "made a serious error in reasoning after reading my 1981 paper--that is, he assumed that cigarettes with higher concentrations of nicotine in the tobacco result in higher yields of nicotine in tobacco smoke. . . . That assumption is incorrect."
Meanwhile, after pressure from Congress, the tobacco industry Wednesday released a heretofore secret list of chemical additives in cigarettes. R.J. Reynolds, which disseminated the list on behalf of six major U.S. companies, said in a statement that the additives "are virtually the same as those found in many everyday foods and are not hazardous under the conditions of use."
But Jim O'Hara, a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration--which is studying the issue of whether cigarettes should be regulated as drugs--said that the industry was, in effect, "comparing apples with oranges" by saying that the ingredients were safe because they were routinely added to foods.
In foods, such additives "are not burned or inhaled," O'Hara said. "This doesn't say they are safe--or unsafe," he added. "It just doesn't speak to the safety issue at all when these additives are used in cigarettes."
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has been studying cigarette additives, said that the list is difficult to assess without knowing the specific amounts that are added or the recipes of individual brands.
"Based on the information we have, we can't come to any conclusions," said Kent Taylor, a spokesman for the agency.
Spears, who is scheduled to appear today with other high-ranking tobacco industry officials before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health and the environment, which is chaired by Waxman, was specific in his 1981 article. He described how nicotine levels could be heightened in low-tar cigarettes by using more of the tobaccos with higher nicotine levels in the blending process.
Waxman said that "the American people are entitled to know what's going on here. How do the tobacco companies maintain nicotine in tobacco at sufficient levels to sustain addiction? What other methods are used to control nicotine levels? The time for straight answers is here."
Spears on Wednesday disputed allegations by Waxman and by the FDA commissioner, Dr. David A. Kessler, that companies may be adding nicotine to cigarettes and called tobacco blending "a centuries-old process that is clearly documented in the published literature."
The claims made by Waxman are "based on misinformation and misunderstandings," Spears said.
He said that the 1981 article was meant to analyze trends "occurring in the market at that time and concluded that nicotine levels were higher in the very low tar and nicotine-yield cigarettes on a sales-weighted basis and that this was occurring because of blending."
In releasing its additives list, the industry said that about 99% of U.S. non-menthol cigarettes, by weight, contain primarily tobacco, water, sugars, glycerin, propylene glycol, licorice, cocoa and additional flavors, with tobacco about 90% of the total.
Some specific ingredients that have come under question--among them ethyl furoate, megastigmatrienone, maltitol and methoprene--occur naturally in foods or have been approved by the FDA for use in foods, the industry said.
"Every ingredient on the list has been reviewed at the industry's request by an independent panel of expert toxicologists," R.J. Reynolds said. "Their finding was that . . . every one . . . (is) safe in the amounts used."
The eight chemicals among cigarette additives most questioned by tobacco opponents:
* Megastigmatrienone: a flavoring tobacco companies contend is found naturally in grapefruit juice and considered safe by the food industry. The Food and Drug Administration couldn't confirm that.