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The Mystery of Philip Morris' Nicotine Inhaler

The tobacco giant's device, invented years ago in secret, could be a boon for addicted smokers. But the project appears to have stalled.

October 30, 2005|Myron Levin | Times Staff Writer

Cigarette maker Philip Morris has developed an inhaler that could deliver a nicotine mist deep into the lungs, giving smokers a satisfying dose of the addictive drug without the carcinogens, gases and toxic metals that make tobacco smoke so dangerous.

Cloaked in secrecy, the device was invented nearly a dozen years ago at a time the tobacco industry was vigorously denying that nicotine was addictive, internal company documents show. It was part of an effort by the top cigarette maker to explore the possibility of offering a "clean" form of nicotine to those who can't or won't quit.

A nicotine inhaler probably would draw a mixed response, similar to the debate over offering clean needles to heroin users. Though some health professionals might object to any product that sustains nicotine dependence, many others say "clean" nicotine could be a powerful weapon in the fight against tobacco-related diseases.

For reasons Philip Morris declines to discuss, the project appears to have stalled. The company has been aggressively courting pharmaceutical companies to use the inhaler for therapeutic drugs, but its future as a cigarette alternative is a mystery.

"For competitive reasons, we do not comment on our future business plans," said Peggy Roberts, senior director of communications for Philip Morris USA, which is part of Altria Group Inc.

For Philip Morris, a nicotine inhaler would pose clear risks.

The company controls 50% of the U.S. cigarette market on the strength of its Marlboro brand, the world's most popular cigarette. An alternative product, if successful, could cannibalize Philip Morris' existing business -- and possibly create a new public relations headache. Mitch Zeller, a former Food and Drug Administration official, said some might accuse the company "of getting smokers at both ends" and "keeping the customer in the franchise in a very clever way."

Unlike cigarettes, which are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, a tobacco-free nicotine product would face a long and costly government review, with uncertain results.

Yet, as it strives to improve its tattered image, Philip Morris could benefit by appearing to be part of the solution, some observers said.

"The cigarette manufacturers don't want to kill their customers," said Kenneth Warner, dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. "That's simply an unfortunate side effect of use of the product."

"If they can come up with a substitute that would capture the same-size market, they'd love it," Warner said. It would "save them a lot of legal fees" and "they'd feel more virtuous."

Since admitting the dangers of smoking a few years ago, Philip Morris has publicly pledged to lower the risks.

As Michael Szymanczyk, the company's chief executive, told a group of financial analysts in 2002, "Our scientists are working with a single-minded focus on finding ways to reduce a smoker's exposure to potentially harmful constituents in tobacco smoke."

Yet the company and its rivals often have been accused of holding back safety advances to avoid undermining their existing products. It's a charge echoed by the Justice Department in its racketeering case against the tobacco industry in Washington.

Tobacco companies have denied the claim, citing major investments in potentially less risky products such as Philip Morris' Accord and R.J. Reynolds' Eclipse, both designed to heat, rather than burn, tobacco.

But William A. Farone, former director of applied research at Philip Morris, said the company had a long history of exploring promising developments such as the nicotine inhaler -- then getting cold feet. "They always worried in the ultimate about losing the damn gold mine they have," said Farone, who was fired in 1984 for what the company said was insubordination.

Now, Chrysalis Technologies Inc., a tiny Philip Morris subsidiary, is trying to sell the inhaler as an alternative to injections for a variety of medications, including pain remedies and treatments for emphysema, a disease caused by smoking.

Last January, for example, Chrysalis touted the hand-held device, called Aria, at a drug-delivery conference in San Diego. Brooks Adams, director of business development for Chrysalis, described it as a "compact, easy-to-use portable inhaler" with "high lung-dosing potential," according to a copy of his presentation.

Nicotine is a mild stimulant that helps some people to focus and relax when under stress. Although a crucial part of a deadly product, nicotine by itself is not very bad for most people, experts say.

It does increase the heart rate and could harm people with an existing cardiac condition. For others, however, the effect is similar to mild exercise, said Dr. Neal Benowitz, a nicotine expert and professor of medicine, psychiatry and biopharmaceutical sciences at UC San Francisco.

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