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What goes up in smoke?

Every year, the tobacco companies and their sworn enemies at the Department of Health and Human Services join in a ritual dance. The tobacco companies turn over to H.H.S.'s Office on Smoking and Health a list of the hundreds of secret ingredients they add to cigarettes. Federal officials obligingly lock it in a safe, away from the prying eyes of consumers and health scientists. Required by a watered-down 1984 law, the exercise is what passes for public disclosure of the secret and potentially dangerous ingredients added to cigarettes. In fact, the list is "page after page of effectively useless information," complained Senator Edward Kennedy at a hearing last year of his Committee on Labor and Human Resources.

The list does not specify which additives are used in particular brands. Were they allowed to read it, smokers would still not know what ingredients are added to Winstons or Virginia Slims. Nor would scientists be able to determine if certain additives, alone or in combination, increase the already considerable risks of smoking. As things stand, however, this vagueness is beside the point. The list is off-limits to public scrutiny and there are criminal penalties for disclosing it.

"I think that consumers have a right to know what is in tobacco products--just as they have a right to know what is in other consumer goods like food products--but I'm not allowed under law to release this information to the public," said Dr. Ronald Davis, until earlier this year director of the Office on Smoking and Health and official gurdian of the list. Remarked a Congressional aide, who would not speak for attribution, "If you're going to label ingredients on boxes of cereal, it's stupid not to label ingredientts on the most dangerous product sold in America." for their part, the cigarette makers say they aren't trying to keep the public in the dark but are merely protecting brand recipes that are trade secrets. "We have complied scrupulously with the law," said Stanley Temko, a lawyer with Covington & Burling, the industry's powerhouse Washington law firm.

But the situation underscores the companies' success, over more than a dozen years, in averting meaningful disclosure of what they put in their cigarettes. "Tobacco products stand very much as the exception to what's really become standard practice as far as notification of the public," said Dr. Mona Sarfaty of the Senate labor committee staff. "I would characterize the situation as one of special privilege for the tobacco industry. It is just a perfect reflection of the incredible political power of the tobacco industry and the money it throws around to protect its product."

The issue is before Congress again this session. But there is no reason to think that concerned lawmakers and health activists will de better than they have in the past against the determined resistance of the tobacco companies and their legions of lobbyists and lawyers.

Although cigarettes appear to be nothing but tobacco rolled in paper, that has never been completely the case. Chemicals, plant extracts and other ingredients are used to keep tobacco moist and fresh and to control taste, odor and burn rate. That the amounts used are significant is suggested on a package of Marlboros bought in France, which lists the ingredients as 92 percent tobacco and paper 8 percent "agents de texture, de saveur et conservateurs"--texturizers, flavorants and preservatives. (In the United States, the Marlboro pack lists the following ingredients: "Selected fine tobaccos.")

Additives used in American cigarettes are thought to be similar to those on lists prepared by the Canadian and British governments from data supplied by their domestic tobacco firms. A number of these ingredients give cause for concern. For example, shellac, acetone and turpentine appear on one or both lists, as do acetaldehyde and glyoxal, both animal carcinogens. There's methyl salicylate, which cause birth defects in hamsters when given orally or applied to the skin. And there's licorice root, a flavorant and moistener that contains glycyrrhizic acid, which produces cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons when burned. When heated, caramel and other sugars used to flavor cigarettes produce catechol, a co-carcinogen (a compound that strengthens the effect of other cancer-causing compounds). Several natural amino acids that are added to tobacco are converted to suspected carcinogens when heated, according to scientists at the American Health Foundation.

With or without additives, there is no question that tobacco smoke causes lung cancer, heart disease and other ailments, health officials say. But whether additives increase the risk is of great interest, because their use is believed to be haviest in the low-tar and nicotine brands that are promoted as safer. The use of additives accelerated after the lung cancer scares of the 1950s and 1960s threatened the cigarette makers with a disastrous loss of customers. The industry responded by introducing "lighter" brands to help worried smokers rationalize their habit. But the light brands--which used milder tobacco, dense filters and ventilation holes to dilute the smoke--lacked the strong taste to which smokers were accustomed. So the companies turned to additives to fortify the taste. As a result, health officials say, the brands purported to be safest are those most heavily laced with secret additives.

Congress recognized the problem more than a dozen years ago, directing the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (predecessor of H.H.S.) in a 1978 authorization bill to study and report to Congress on "the health risks associated with smoking cigarettes containing any substances commonly added to commercially manufactured cigarettes."

There was one problem, however. Health officials didn't know which substances were "commonly added" and the cigarette makers weren't telling. In 1980, Surgeon General Julius Richmond was rebuffed when he wrote each of the major companies to request a list of additives. After he wrote a second time, two of them sent him copies of a British government additives list--without saying which of the ingredients they used. Years later, data on cigarette additives were still "urgently required"--according to the 1984 Surgeon General's report--but were impossible to obtain "because cigarette companies are not required to reveal what additives they employ."

That year, however, it appeared a solution was in sight. Congress passed the legislation that established the current set of rotating health warnings for cigarette packs and advertising. Another provision of the 1984 law required the cigarette makers, for the first time, to provide H.H.S. with an annual list of the additives they used. But the mandate was fatally undermined by compromise. Rather than requiring all companies to list the ingredients and quantities used in each brand, the law allowed the industry to produce a single list lacking all these specifics. Moreover, the law treated the annual lists like state secrets, requiring H.H.S. to keep them under lock and key and making disclosure to th epublic a crime.

The law did allow H.H.S. officials or contract scientists working for the agency to study the list and report findings and recommendations to Congress. Had this occurred--and had Congressional committees held hearings or issued reports--some information could have become available to the public. But H.H.S. has never made an in-depth analysis or submitted studies to Congress.

Part of the explanation lies in the lean budget of the Office on Smoking and Health, which in most years has received about $4 million to prepare the annual Surgeon General's report, conduct antismoking education and assist tobacco control efforts by the states. The agency once retained a noted toxicologist, and another time a chemist, to review the ingredients list as a first step toward preparing a report. But nothing came of either effort. Because the list is an undifferentiated mass of chemical names not grouped by brand, a meaningful study would probably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars--less than the price of a Patriot missile, but serious money for the Office on Smoking and Health.

The failure also reflects a philosophical split within the coalition of health agencies, antismoking activists and tobacco critics in Congress. For many of them, additives are a right-to-know issue and a potential propaganda weapon of great value. They would like nothing better than to prove that the same unpronounceable chemicals that induce panic when found at Superfund sites are deliberately added to cigarettes. But other activists regard the issue as something of a distraction. They fear that if health officials were to focus on a few harmful additives, they would be implying that without them smoking could be safe. Thus some antismoking forces have not pursued the issue with the same ardor as they have cigarette advertising or other causes.

Legislation to require public disclosure of additives failed in the last session of Congress, but Senator Kennedy is trying again. His omnibus antismoking education bill, introduced in May, would require cigarette manufacturers to list for H.H.S. all additives and their quantities by brand. They would also have to list ingredients on cigarette packs of package inserts--although to mollify the companies, additives deemed trade secrets would not have to be listed by name. Even so, the measure is probably headed for defeat.

Meanwhile, the cigarette makers continue to insist that the ingredients they use are of no real interest to anyone, other than competitors. However, the recent experience of Canada casts doubt on such assertions. Since 1989, all manufacturers of cigarettes sold in Canada have been required to list by brand all additives and the quantities used. The information has been provided to Canadian health officials but not to the public. But U.S. tobacco companies are taking no chances. When the requirement took effect, R.J. Reynolds staged a temporary retreat, pulling its brands out of Canada. After a while Reynolds came back--announcing that it had reformulated the brands so the Canadian recipe was different from the American. Philiop Morris, the world's leading cigarette maker, took more drastic action, permanently withdrawing from the Canadian market. American brands account for only about 1 percent of Canadian cigarette sales. But even that translates into retail sales of tens of millions of dollars.

Said Neil Collishaw, until recently director of the tobacco products section of the Canadian Department of Health and Welfare: "The question that I think I would ask if I were an American is, what is it that American tobacco companies don't want the Canadian government to know about American cigarettes, to the point where they're willing to stop shipping their product to Canada altogether?"
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Title Annotation:secret cigarette additives
Author:Levin, Myron
Publication:The Nation
Date:Dec 23, 1991
Words:1738
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