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'Safer' Cigarettes Appeal to Some, but Appall Others

Consumer* New products are marketed as having fewer carcinogens. But critics fear they will encourage smoking, and experts call for research.

June 10, 2002|SHARI ROAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If a smoker can't or won't kick the habit, is puffing on a less hazardous cigarette the next best alternative? Consumers may have to decide for themselves.

One product advertised as "the first reduced carcinogen cigarette" is already on the market; another brand, which its makers say contains "less toxins," is being test-marketed. And this summer a nicotine-free, reduced-carcinogen product aimed at smokers who are trying to quit will arrive on store shelves.

But the very notion of a safer cigarette appalls many tobacco-control advocates. Saying there is no evidence that smoking can be made safer, they charge that such products could cause people to avoid quitting or even to take up smoking.

Other experts have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. They maintain that independent research should be done on the new cigarettes to determine if they actually could reduce harm to smokers or work as a bridge to help the most addicted smokers quit. The new cigarettes contain fewer nitrosamines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, carcinogens found in cigarette smoke, than premium cigarettes.

"I don't think the majority of [health professionals] would advise smokers to use these products just yet," says Dr. David Burns, a tobacco researcher at UC San Diego. "But I think there are people who are interested in seeing research on whether they work."

Although Vector Tobacco, the maker of the already available Omni, concedes that sales are slow thus far, the potential market for the products is vast. Nearly 50 million Americans smoke; many of them would like to quit and are desperate for a way to do so.

"The people who could quit smoking without a great deal of difficulty have probably already done so," says John Banzhof, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, a Washington, D.C., anti-tobacco health organization. "Most of us in the [tobacco control] movement today believe most of the smokers are hard-core addicts. They find it incredibly hard to quit."

The idea of a less harmful smoke appears to make sense to people. In a recent poll of smokers and nonsmokers in Indianapolis, 74% said they think tobacco companies should work toward the development of a safer cigarette. The poll was commissioned by Brown & Williamson, which is test-marketing Advance Lights in Indianapolis.

Advance Lights are made with a special tobacco-curing process and a filter that reduce nitrosamines and PAHs. Omni also uses tobacco processed to reduce nitrosamines and PAHs.

"It's nice to say that everyone should stop smoking, and we are pushing toward that," says Bennett LeBow, chief executive of Vector, which also owns Liggett Group, maker of discount cigarettes. "In the meantime we really believe you can do something to reduce the long-term risks of cigarette smoking." But with as many as 4,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke, the risks to smokers are many and varied. Besides elevating the risk of at least nine forms of cancer, smoking is linked to heart disease, emphysema and pulmonary disorders. Smoking also increases the risk of birth defects.

There is no proof that reducing PAHs or nitrosamines translates to a decreased risk to smokers. And the advertising surrounding Omni and Advance Lights may mislead people into thinking there is a safe way to smoke, says Ken Warner, director of the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network, which studies smoking and health.

"Smokers who are always trying to avoid quitting may believe that they are now eliminating their risk of lung cancer," he says. "Former smokers may say, 'Thank God, they have created a smoke that doesn't cause lung cancer; I can start up again.' And kids could be persuaded to start if they think it doesn't cause lung cancer. We could end up with a substantial increase in the disease burden associated with smoking."

Being able to reduce PAHs "offers promise, but that promise has not been studied, even in animals," Burns says. "We know very little about the actual carcinogens people receive from this product."

Warner says lowering the nitrosamines doesn't compromise taste. But he says, "Nitrosamines are not the only carcinogens in tobacco smoke. And anything combusted still has too much risk to be promoted as [less harmful]. You're still left with heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema caused by smoking."

A Brown & Williamson spokesman says the company is not claiming that Advance Lights reduce disease risk. The company will await the results of test-marketing before deciding whether to market the product nationwide.

"We cannot make any claim on the health effects because you are still smoking a cigarette," says Mark Smith, a spokesman for Brown & Williamson. "But those smokers who are concerned with the health consequences of smoking would see this as a step in the right direction."

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