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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.