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Editor,—It has been known for more than 150 years that nicotine is the chemical in tobacco that is responsible for the perceived salutary as well as the adverse effects among users. Efforts to market “denicotinised” tobacco have repeatedly failed. The 1964 report of the advisory committee to the US Surgeon General stated, “Denicotinized tobacco has not found general public acceptance as a substitute.”1 Recently, Philip Morris Companies withdrew “Next”, their low nicotine cigarette brand, because of poor sales. However, Liggett Group chief executive officer Bennett Lebow plans to market a genetically engineered “low nicotine” tobacco in 2002 as an aid for smoking cessation. What are the origins of tobacco companies' interest in marketing low nicotine brands? The following sketch from an 1852 issue of Scientific American,2 quoted in its entirety, sheds some light on this question:
“Great Discovery for Tobacco Smokers It will be seen by reference to our advertising columns that a new preparation of smoking tobacco has been offered in our market, the peculiar excellence of which consists in the extraction of the poisonous qualities without affecting the fine flavor and aroma of the weed. The proprietors placed in our hands some time since a package of this tobacco for trial and we can speak from experience when we say it is a most mild and delightful article. It takes away from the antitobacco men their chief argument, for it has no nicotine in it and can be used with safety as well as pleasure by persons whose nerves are affected by smoking. For ourselves, we intend never to be without this denicotinized tobacco, and trust that its proprietors will be liberally patronized by the public. It is for sale by Bennet & Beers.—(Richmond Va.) Republican.” “When the nicotine is extracted will it be tobacco? Would we be wheat if all the starch were extracted. Nicotine gives tobacco its peculiar flavour. We should like to see what kind of tobacco this was with all the nicotine gone.”
One might conclude from this piece that by 1852 tobacco companies recognised at least some of the dangers of their product, understood the “poisonous” qualities of nicotine, discovered how to remove nicotine from tobacco, and crafted an aggressive marketing effort that linked “denicotinised” tobacco and “safety”, for a leading science journal of the day. Since the nicotine content of “denicotinised” tobacco has varied widely,3 one can only speculate whether Bennet & Beers—and Scientific American—were marketing a nicotine-free tobacco or merely a lower nicotine content product.