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Pig's blood in cigarette filters: how a single news release highlighted tobacco industry concealment of cigarette ingredients
  1. Ross MacKenzie,
  2. Simon Chapman
  1. School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Professor Simon Chapman, School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia; simon.chapman{at}sydney.edu.au

Abstract

The tobacco industry is not obligated to disclose ingredients and additives used in manufactured tobacco production. This paper describes global reaction to a press release highlighting evidence that porcine haemoglobin (“pig's blood”) was sometimes used in cigarette manufacturing while never being disclosed to smokers. The case study illustrates the power of press releases to ignite major interest in tobacco control issues.

  • Advocacy

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Introduction

News media are the leading sources of public information on health issues1 2 and play a key role in health policy formulation.3 For tobacco control advocates, media coverage of tobacco control issues presents an unparalleled opportunity to disseminate information about the health consequences of smoking to the public, and calls for action on tobacco control issues by policymakers.4 The news industry has been dramatically altered by the exponential growth of the internet; between 2000 and 2009, the number of global internet users increased 5000-fold from 360 000 to more than 1.8 billion.5 In the USA 61% of citizens now get their news online, with the internet slightly behind television and ahead of newspapers as a preferred news source.6 Health and medicine are the third most accessed online news category, after weather and national events.6

The current project distributed media news releases on unpublicised tobacco control-related research reports from March to August 2010, with the aim of increasing media coverage of issues of strategic importance to tobacco control. Each release summarised a selected report, and included commentary by an Australian expert.7 A pilot study reported tobacco control news items released by the project accounted for 20.5% of total tobacco-related news reports over a five-week period in New South Wales (NSW) urban print media.8 This paper presents a case study of the extraordinary international uptake of one news release that focused on the possible use of pig haemoglobin in cigarette filters. We also give examples of how the story was distorted in some reports.

Porcine haemoglobin in cigarettes

In March 2010 we were alerted to a review of a photography book entitled Pig 05049 by Dutch artist Christien Meindertsma in the UK newspaper the Guardian.9 The book listed 185 manufactured goods using pig components. These included commonplace products like bacon, pork and sausages, and less well-known uses including gelatine in beer; cheesecake and bullets; intestinal material used in the anti-coagulant heparin; and porcine haemoglobin in cigarette filters. In researching the book, Meindertsma informed us that she had ‘talked to the people who make, sell and develop the ingredients derived from pigs within the companies that are at the beginning of the chain’ (email from author).

The potential news interest of pig-sourced products in cigarette manufacturing was immediately apparent, particularly for Islamic, Jewish and vegetarian smokers. It was equally clear that this information provided a memorable way of illustrating concerns that ingredients such as additives or processing aids used in tobacco products are virtually unregulated and non-transparent.10–12 Such discussion could potentially stimulate governments to consider ingredients disclosure legislation.

To assess Meindertsma's claim that pig's blood was used in cigarettes we conducted a Google search using ‘porcine haemoglobin’ and found that it has many industrial uses. In regard to tobacco, in January 1997 the development of a new ‘biofilter’ cigarette technology was announced by Greek researchers, who described it as ‘revolutionary’ and stated that it would ‘make smoking less harmful for hundreds of millions of smokers around the world’.13 Their system contained haemoglobin from an unspecified source which purportedly acted as ‘as an artificial lung’, thus protecting smokers from ‘70%’ of tar, oxygen-free radicals and nitric oxide and its derivatives ‘without altering the taste of the cigarette and its aromatic elements’.13 The announcement also referred to health benefits related to secondhand smoke exposure, as smoke exhaled from a cigarette with a biological filter was reported to be ‘40 times less toxic’.13

Similar claims for the efficacy of the biofilter system were made in the February 1998 edition of the tobacco industry trade journal Tobacco Reporter, to the consternation of other cigarette manufacturers, which were then still uniformly denying health risks attributable to smoking.14 Critics argued that these health claims had not been verified in proper trials,15 and subsequent studies have confirmed that they were not only unsubstantiated,16–18 but created an ‘illusion that there are ways to restrict the adverse health effects of smoking’.18

The new biofilter technology was used in BF brands made by the Greek cigarette company SEKAP, and its commercial potential was confirmed when BF captured 6% of Greek market share in the month following its launch.14 SEKAP's website describes the launch of ‘the first biological filter world-wide’ as the peak of company's ‘evolution to date’, and responsible for making SEKAP the second largest cigarette manufacturer in Greece.19 By the time the Greek government prohibited the use of healthier smoking claims in advertising in 200220 ‘the image of a less harmful cigarette had already been created in consumers’ minds',21 and claims that the biofilter system can ‘neutralize various harmful compounds in cigarette smoke’ and provide ‘higher protection to the smoker’ are still printed on the back surface of every pack.15 Finally, BF cigarettes are exported to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The Russian cigarette manufacturer Donskoy Tabak promoted its use of the ‘three-segments biofilter which contains activated carbon, treated with a special mixture on the basis of haemoglobin’ in its 21 VEK brand,22 while a filter manufacturer, Choice Filters, also makes filters with haemoglobin,23 which it claims are sold in the USA and Canada.

On 30 March 2010 we distributed a media release entitled ‘New book on pig products reveals problems for Islamic, Jewish and vegetarian smokers’24 to Australian media. The release included comments by author SC highlighting the ongoing problem surrounding the confidentiality of cigarette ingredients.24 Global media reports were tracked using Google and Google News, and Australian coverage tracked using Media Monitors25 and FACTIVA,26 as well as Google.

International coverage

The pig's blood story generated extraordinary international attention (table 1), and internet searches revealed that newspapers covering the release included the UK Daily Mail online,27 the Times of India,28 the Jakarta Globe29 and the Calcutta News.30

Table 1

Google News and Google search results March–May 2010

Further indication of the impact of the release is suggested by the fact that the first page of results generated by a typical internet search generates nearly 90% of user traffic.31 All results of the first page of returns for all four search strings listed in table 1 were related to our release.

Australian coverage

The story was picked up by just one newswire service, Australian Associated Press (AAP),32 and subsequently appeared in 24 media-based in New South Wales (table 2). These included the internet sites of the state's two leading daily newspapers, but most coverage occurred in NSW-based national media. Five nationally broadcast television reports included two segments aired on the US-based satirical television news programme The Colbert Report.33 The story also ran in 17 news outlets based in other Australian states.

Table 2

New South Wales potential audience for media carrying pig haemoglobin release*

Journalistic distortions

Following the release, author SC gave one interview to Israeli television, but was not interviewed by any other media until a visit to Indonesia in late June when about 15 journalists resurrected the story for local coverage. All other coverage was precipitated by the initial media release, as reported by the AAP.32 The growing coverage incorporated a large number of inaccurate claims, some of which could be described as factoids, first described by Norman Mailer as ‘facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper’.34 Meindertsma's publication was widely reported, for instance, as evidence that cigarettes in general incorporated pig haemoglobin in filter construction, and author SC received many emails, mainly from Muslims, wanting to know which brands on sale in their country contained pig's blood.

The gravity with which some organisations treated these media reports is suggested by the South African National Halaal Association, which issued a leaflet (figure 1), which was posted on its website and distributed to mosques across the country. The leaflet's claims that use of pig haemoglobin, cognac and rum in cigarette manufacture had been confirmed caused a debate that involved retailers, cigarette manufacturers and the tobacco control community.35 Calls for testing of cigarettes sold locally occurred in Indonesia,36 Malaysia,37 Brunei38 and by the Refik Saydam National Public Health Agency of Turkish Ministry of Health.39 In late July 2010, the story took a new turn when Iran's semi-official news agency Mehr quoted Mohammad Reza Madani of the country's Society for Fighting Smoking who claimed that:contraband Marlboros have been contaminated with pig haemoglobin and unspecified nuclear material. Madani claimed Philip Morris International, which sells Marlboro outside the U.S., is ‘led by Zionists’ and deliberately exports tainted cigarettes.40

Figure 1

South African National Halaal Association poster.

A 21 August 2010 Google search using the search string ‘pig's blood cigarettes Iran’ returned 22 700 hits.

The response of the tobacco industry to the release was generally muted although BAT subsidiaries in Malaysia, Australia and Hong Kong denied using porcine products.41–43 South African companies were the most vociferous, where denials were issued by BAT, Japan Tobacco International, Philip Morris SA and the Tobacco Institute of South Africa.44

Discussion

Coverage of the pig haemoglobin story met the project's objective of creating media coverage of key tobacco control policy issues, in this case the tobacco industry's longstanding refusal to make full public disclosure of all ingredients contained in cigarettes. The great majority of international media and other internet attention focused on concerns raised by observers regarding the implications of smoking cigarettes that potentially contained ingredients that were haram, or prohibited, in Muslim society. We suspect that few previous news episodes have drawn greater global attention to this issue.

The rapid and widespread dissemination of the pig's blood release demonstrates the increasingly significant role of the internet in media advocacy for public health policy. We found 41% of all media hits were online, including the websites of traditional print outlets such as the Sydney Morning Herald and Daily Telegraph, which did not cover it in their hardcopy editions. Significantly for many advocacy agencies, the cost of sending the release out was negligible.

The remarkable level of coverage the release attracted also suggests the potential opportunities created by framing important tobacco control issues in unusual or unorthodox ways to attract the attention of newsrooms staff who may ordinarily regard tobacco control stories as predictable and ‘tired’.

While in this instance, we were only contacted by one news programme (Israeli television) after the release, big news stories can cause a deluge of requests for interviews. In this instance, the deluge took the form of emails from citizens requesting further information. Preparation of answers to ‘frequently asked questions’ sheets are invaluable in efficiently responding to such inquiries, as are brief notes to assist those being interviewed in stressing a limited number of key points during interviews.

Apart from its interest to Islamic and Jewish smokers, this release was intended to highlight government dereliction of duty to regulate tobacco and secretiveness by tobacco companies in their general failure to disclose ingredients. As planned, all inquiries about whether pig sourced products were being used in cigarettes in different countries immediately came up against the problem of the non-availability of ingredient information. Policy reform in tobacco control rarely follows rapidly from a single episode of publicity, but follows sustained advocacy that typically lasts years and sometimes decades. Raising public interest and concern about tobacco product regulation presents many challenges, as many additives in use are chemicals with names that hold little meaning for consumers. By widely publicising an ingredient that would raise great concern in many smokers, our release could have contributed to raising awareness that tobacco products are unregulated.

References

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Footnotes

  • Funding Cancer Institute NSW.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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