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Working in tobacco control, it is easy to get the impression that the tobacco industry is a united front, with all parties carefully avoiding internal divisions that might undermine the greater struggle against the “antis”. However, tobacco industry documents that have been made public as a result of litigation in the USA frequently reveal ruthless competition for market share, as well as intense suspicion about competitors’ activities. This was brought home to us recently when reading a 1977 document on “developments in the scientific field” by Dr Sydney J Green, then British American Tobacco’s (BAT’s) senior scientist for research and development.1 After several pages of unremarkable reports on industry and external research on low tar cigarettes and smoking and health, Green informed his readers about two “way-out” developments at BAT:
Way-out development 1: “A way-out development is that of compounds (such as etorphine) which are 10,000 times as effective as analgesics [such] as morphine and which are very addictive. It is theoretically possible (if politically unthinkable) to add analytically undetectable quantities of such materials to cigarettes to create brand allegiance. But this thought may suggest the possibility of such compounds occurring naturally.”
We are grateful to Dr Green for clarifying what “brand allegiance” really means for the tobacco industry.
Way-out development 2: “Another way-out development, which arises from work done in a quite different area, is that it would now be quite feasible and quite inexpensive to produce an unacceptable off-taste in cigarettes from some factories for a prolonged period without approaching nearer than half to one mile.”
In the same spirit of scientific curiosity which no doubt motivated the BATCO researchers, we would be very interested to know the formula for this substance.
On a more serious note, while we were not able to come up with any plausible candidates for a substance that could make way-out development 2 feasible, we are concerned that Green was right about the feasibility of adding etorphine or some other addictive substance to cigarettes.
Green’s report followed an earlier memo from Kieth D Kilburn to CI Ayres,2 expressing concern about what BATCO’s competitors might be doing to their “low delivery cigarettes” (that is, low machine measured tar and nicotine yield cigarettes) in order to create brand allegiance. Kilburn proposed that a regular etorphine dose of as little as 0.2 μg per day would be sufficient to create an addictive craving for the source. He also claimed that the required delivery of around 7 ng per cigarette (or around half the delivery of benzo[a]pyrene) would be analytically difficult to measure.
Etorphine is a powerful drug with heroin-like effects, which include respiratory failure in the case of overdose. It may be more familiar to readers as “elephant juice”—a veterinary drug with such high potency that a tiny quantity injected from a dart can immobilise an elephant.
The dangers of etorphine to humans have been dramatically demonstrated in accidents during veterinary use, as there have been fatal overdoses to veterinarians attempting to dart large unruly animals. Reputedly, a mere scratch from an etorphine dart has been sufficient in some cases to provide a fatal overdose. As a consequence of these fatalities, veterinarians who are registered to use etorphine must now have an assistant standing by with a dose of an etorphine antagonist in hand.
These observations on the dangers of etorphine underscore Green’s and Kilburn’s essential point: very low concentrations of certain psychoactive substances may be sufficient to produce important effects, including addiction. Fortunately, etorphine has become much more readily detectable in recent years than Green and Kilburn suggested was the case in 1977, because forensic toxicologists have put considerable effort into developing highly sensitive detection methods. However, in a world market with minimal regulation of cigarette additives and limited testing capacity outside the industry’s own laboratories, we should remain concerned about what the tobacco industry might be willing to do in order to create “brand allegiance”.
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