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Cigarette testing methods, product design, and labelling: time to clean up the “negative baggage”
  1. Smoke-free Kids, Inc.
  2. PO Box 13886
  3. Charleston, South Carolina 29422, USA;
  4. JSW700{at}

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    In 1936, the first filtered cigarette was introduced and positioned in the market place as “a mild, clean smoke with health benefits resulting from filtration”. Non-filtered cigarettes with high tar and nicotine deliveries were the norm at that time. From 1942 to 1961 the volume of filtered cigarettes sold grew and overcame non-filtered cigarettes, largely due to advertising and publicity claims that filtered cigarette smoke was “better for your health” and claims that implied “health and taste benefits due to filtration”. The development of apparent low-delivery cigarettes by the tobacco industry was intensified in response to the United States surgeon general’s 1964 report on smoking and health1 and the public perception that filtered cigarettes would present less exposure to the smoker of the toxic pyrolysis products of a cigarette. During the past four decades the cigarette manufacturers have nurtured this perception by producing a myriad of low-delivery products through sophisticated cigarette design, tobacco blend manipulation, use of additives, and the help of a co-opted Federal Trade Commission (FTC) testing method.

    The cigarette manufacturers have convinced the public that a cigarette is nothing but tobacco leaf grown in the ground and wrapped in paper. However, this is far from what actually happens. In fact, at every step from tobacco growing and leaf blending to cigarette design and manufacture, a central objective of the cigarette manufacturers is to carefully control the nicotine dose the smoker will get.2 3

    In this issue of Tobacco Control, Kozlowski et al4 have investigated the effects of filter ventilation and nicotine content of tobacco on machine-smoked yields of cigarettes from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. They found that filter ventilation was “by far the largest factor influencing machine-smoked yields of tar, nicotine, and CO (carbon monoxide)”.

    Cigarette ventilation is one of the key technologies used by cigarette manufacturers to manipulate tar and nicotine yields, especially with low-delivery products/brands. Cigarette ventilation is accomplished by using electrostatically perforated cigarette paper either derived from flax or wood pulp and laser perforation of the filter wrapper during the cigarette manufacturing process. Both types of perforation technologies can be used either singly or in conjunction with each other dependent on cigarette design and desired smoke yields.

    The cigarette design principle of using ventilation is that, as a cigarette is puffed on, a stream of air is pulled through the ventilation perforations (holes), diluting both the gas and particulate phases of the burning cigarette. The theoretical effect is reduced deliveries of tar, nicotine, and other pyrolysis byproducts, which lead the consumer to believe that they are smoking a less hazardous product.5 The deliveries of low tar/nicotine ventilated cigarettes can be just as high as, if not higher than, light or full-flavour brands due to several factors. These factors are: an understated FTC (or other machine-smoked) testing value, compensatory smoking (for example, increasing puff frequency or depth of inhalation), and cigarette elasticity. This is further coupled with the use of advertising identifiers, such as ultra-light or light, that complete the link between sophisticated science and sophisticated marketing.

    About Jeffrey Wigand

    Dr Jeffrey Wigand served as the vice president for research and development at the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company from 1988 to 1993. His career with Brown & Williamson came to an abrupt halt in March 1993 when he took issue with the company’s policy to continue using a controversial pipe tobacco additive.

     In 1994 and 1995, Dr Wigand began to share his knowledge of cigarette product design with staff at the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The information Dr Wigand shared with the FDA on the tobacco industry’s use of additives in tobacco, genetically engineered tobacco, and other aspects of cigarette design contributed to the FDA’s decision to regulate cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products.

     Dr Wigand’s willingness to expose the truth about what the tobacco industry knew about the dangers of smoking has made him a key witness in the current wave of tobacco litigation. In 1996, he was featured in a segment on the CBS television programme 60 Minutes, which was originally withheld from broadcast because of threats of reprisal from the tobacco industry.

     Dr Wigand now works to reduce teenage smoking through an organisation he formed, called “Smoke-Free Kids”.

    The current FTC method and other machine-smoked results understate the deliveries from ventilated cigarettes by as much as 80% of what the smoker can actually obtain from a ventilated cigarette. The current FTC method was developed with significant industry input. It is this very testing system that the tobacco companies have repeatedly designed their products to exploit. Their success is most evident with ultra-light brands. Therefore, the deliveries printed on the packaging or communicated through advertising identifiers are misleading to the consumer. Machine-smoked methods need to be substantially revised to more accurately reflect actual deliveries a smoker is exposed to in cigarette smoke. One approach would be to modify the machine-smoking parameters to take into consideration how a cigarette is smoked by a human; namely smoker compensation and blocking ventilation holes either with the fingers or lips, and cigarette elasticity. The latter is the capacity of the cigarette to deliver higher doses of nicotine based on tobacco column content than obtained during machine smoking.6

    The current standard machine testing of cigarettes is a 35-ml puff volume for two seconds once a minute down to a specified butt length. Clearly this method does not mimic human smoking where the puff volumes, puff durations, and frequency of puffs are significantly higher; and the resultant deliveries to the smoker are significantly higher.7 Furthermore, the machine method does not take into account blockage of ventilation holes by the smoker, which commonly occurs. The current machine tests need to be revamped or new ones developed by increasing the machine-smoking parameters to be more consistent with human smoking, such as increased puff volume and durations. This would lead to delivery values based on the average of blocked and unblocked ventilation holes or a range based on blocked versus unblocked. This is a simple methodology and would be a step in the right direction in providing test results that are more meaningful and realistic to the consumer. This change is further militated by the fact that the industry has known about ventilation blocking and has skewed machine-smoked testing results for years. These revised machine-smoke results should become part of the product labelling and advertisements here and abroad, thereby eliminating a substantive misleading of the consumer. While this suggested approach may only address extant products, new testing methods need to be developed for the future, emerging, or potentially less hazardous products (for example, Accord and Eclipse). How will they be tested? By the same old method? The current FTC method is inadequate for these products. It should not only be revamped, but also augmented with other highly reliable analytical methods, including biological testing.

    The industry has known since the early 1970s that smoker compensation occurs when a smoker using a low-tar product “compensates” for the low nicotine delivery by smoking more cigarettes, with deeper puff volumes and longer puff durations—an effect not replicated on any machine. The industry researchers were even postulating that “the effect of switching to a low tar cigarette may be to increase, not decrease, the risks of smoking”.

    The manufacturers should be required to clearly identify where the ventilation holes are located on the filter or redesign the location of the laser-perforated holes so that they cannot be blocked either by the fingers or lips of the smoker. The industry has long known that the ventilation engineered position of the laser-perforated vents on the filter corresponded to the position where smokers would place their lips when drawing on a cigarette or where they would hold the cigarette with their fingers.8 9 At a minimum, the tobacco companies should add this information to their current labelling, either on the pack but preferably on the cigarette. This should not pose a problem given all the logos that have appeared on the cigarette rod. This would assure that consumers are getting the deliveries they expect from labelling and advertising claims, particularly when smokers switch to a lower delivery product because of health concerns.

    Smokers’ knowledge could also be enhanced through consumer education. Few consumers are aware of cigarette design features that impact the delivery of toxic components to which they are exposed while smoking an ultra-light product.10-12 Smokers who switch to low-delivery products have expectations of reduced risks, but in fact they are not attaining them when ventilation holes are occluded unintentionally or unknowingly.

    Smoker compensation is usually associated with a switch to a lower delivery product. Smokers smoke more intensively to satisfy their cravings for nicotine. When compensation is coupled with ventilation blocking, the smoker receives higher deliveries of tar, nicotine, and CO. Repositioning or identifying the location of the ventilation holes would reduce the largest contributor to higher delivery levels. While smoker compensation and smoking behaviour cannot be controlled, elements of cigarette design such as ventilation perforations, which radically affect consumer exposure, need to be addressed.

    The article by Kozlowski et al4 brings into focus the paucity of information that the tobacco industry has allowed to be disseminated to the public and scientific communities, and highlights the need for a change in machine-smoked testing methods, product modification, improved labelling, and consumer education both in the United States and abroad. These changes should emanate from responsible action by the industry or from collaborative efforts among regulators, tobacco control scientists and advocates around the globe. Irrespective of where the action is generated, science and safety must take precedence over industry sales and profits.

    In the tobacco industry’s own words, “We are in the nicotine delivery business and tar is only the negative baggage”. Isn’t it time to clean up the excess baggage?