Are There Safe Cigarettes?

Tobacco was initially used by pre-Columbian Native Americans, who smoked it in pipes and even used it for hallucinogenic purposes in shamanic rituals. Christopher Columbus was given tobacco by natives and introduced it Europe when he returned from North America.

However, tobacco did not become widely used in Europe until the middle of the 16th century, when explorers and diplomats such as France’s Jean Nicot (for whom nicotine was named) popularized its use.

Tobacco was introduced to France in 1556, Portugal in 1558, Spain in 1559, and England in 1565.

Initially, tobacco was produced for pipe smoking, chewing and snuff. Cigarettes were made in a crude, hand-rolled form since the early 1600s, but did not become popular in America until after the civil war. Cigarette sales surged with introduction of the cigarette rolling machine by James Bonsack in 1883, in a contest sponsored by tobacco company Allen and Ginter, who promised $75,000 to the first person to invent a fast cigarette-rolling machine. This facilitated industrialized production and widespread distribution of cigarettes.

Since then, nicotine addiction has become a public-health concern in virtually every nation on Earth.

Warnings about the health risks of smoking were muted until the 1950’s and 1960’s, when a series of unsuccessful lawsuits forced the issue into the public eye. Not until the 1990’s would a lawsuit be won by the plaintiff. However, the American Surgeon General first demanded that warning labels be placed on cigarette packages started in 1966.

Both the tar and nicotine in cigarettes are toxins, each its own way; and that’s without mentioning the poisonous substances such as arsenic used in the curing process. Nicotine is as addictive as heroin or cocaine, and has long-lasting effects on the brain’s dopamine systems. The “tar” which filters attempt to remove falls into four categories of substances: nitrosamines, widely held to be the most carcinogenic of all the agents in tobacco smoke; aldehydes, created by the burning of sugars and cellulose in tobacco; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which form in the cigarette behind the burning tip; and trace amounts of heavy metals from fertilizers used to grow the plant.

Tobacco companies were loath to admit in public that they knew the dangers posed by their product; however, in a sideways concession to tobacco foes, they produced what were advertised as “safer” filtered cigarettes.

In the 1958 a scientist working for Philip Morris went so far as to admit publicly that, “Evidence is builing up that heavy smoking contributes to lung cancer.” He cleverly suggested that this admission could be turned into a “wealth of ammunition” to attack the competion by suggesting that Philip Morris, unlike its competitors, made cigarettes with filters to screen out the toxins. In 1986 the CEO of British American Tobacco, Patrick Sheehy, had a different opinion, and wrote that, “in attempting to develop a “safe” cigarette you are, by implication, in danger of being interpreted as accepting the current product is unsafe, and this is not a position that I think we should take.”

However much tobacco executives attempted to hide the dangers of their product from the public, increasing market demand eventually forced all cigarette companies to develop some filter systems for their cigarettes. Filtered cigarettes accounted for only 1 percent of cigarette purchases in 1950, but this had soared to 87 percent by 1975.

However, the development of filtered cigarettes met two hurdles, one medical and the other a matter of personal taste. Because smokers are nicotine addicts, they will smoke until their craving for nicotine is satisfied. A filter which removes nicotine will simply prompt them to inhale more deeply or smoke more cigarettes. A filter which removes the tar components of tobacco will remove the taste and smoking sensation to which smokers have become accustomed, and consumers find such a product lacking in “flavor”. Due to compensatory behavior by smokers, the amount of toxins consumed is not significantly less than from an unfiltered cigarette, and there is no proof filtered cigarettes are less of health risk.

Still, tobacco companies persist in their efforts to develop better filters. Often they are hampered not by lack of technical knowledge but by consumer behavior. In 1975, Brown and Williamson introduced a new cigarette called Fact, with a new filter designed to selectively remove toxic compounds such a cyanide. However the product did not please consumers, and was removed from the market two years later.

An internet search for “cigarette filter patent” produces 425,000 results as manufacturers strive to outdo each over in the invention of filter materials and baffles to construct a cigarette which they claim is less toxic but still appealing to smokers.

It is difficult to make a filter which removes tar but not nicotine, and tobacco companies have now focused their attention on growing tobacco plants with a higher nicotine content, in order to satisfy smokers’ nicotine addiction with proportionately less exposure to tar. Rumors that cigarette companies “spike”their products with extra nicotine have met with public uproar, since cigarettes are sold as a natural agricultural product.

Scientists have also experiments with tobacco substitutes , with ingredients such as wood pulp, which would produce smoke flavor with less tar. Legal hurdles have stopped such projects, as they are no longer “natural” but rather an artificially-manufactured substance about which health claims are being made. Such products are treated as drugs, and subject to lengthy regulatory battles before they are allowed to be sold. For the tobacco companies, manipulating naturally-grown tobacco leaf is cheaper and more profitable in a competitive marketplace.

Since a cigarette is basically a delivery system for an addictive drug, nicotine, it is theoretically possible to produce a product which has only nicotine, without the diversion of tar. In fact, such a product exists: the nicotine patch. At its most basic level, it has exactly the same function as a cigarette. However, it has less social cachet than the packaging, rituals and paraphenalia associated with smoking: it is for people who want to wean themselves off their addiction.

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