Supressed research into 'safer cigarettes' revived after 34 years

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Research on "safe cigarettes" that was suppressed by tobacco companies more than 30 years ago is being revived by a start-up company.

Quest Research Group of East Falmouth, Massachusetts, is reviving research done in 1969 by the Council for Tobacco Research, an organisation funded by the tobacco industry. The studies investigated the effects of cigarette smoke on the lungs, and particularly how it led to the lung disease emphysema.

But the products developed there by Bertram Eichel, a biochemist, were suppressed by the tobacco companies, which feared lawsuits from cancer sufferers if they learnt that the manufacturers knew their products were dangerous.

"It was based on the fear of lawsuits," Dr Eichel told New Scientist magazine, which reveals the plan today. "If [my research] can demonstrate that tobacco contains substances which are harmful, that would put [the companies] in a very awkward position."

Dr Eichel developed "ion exchange" filters for cigarettes that would remove the most harmful components - hydrogen cyanide and acrolein, both of which irritate the respiratory tract. Normal cigarette filters only catch large particles; the ion exchange filters would catch the two harmful ones, among others.

Dr Eichel went ahead and published the research anyway - only to see his funding cut off. Now he has set up the new company to revive the idea and develop filters.

However, only long-term clinical trials would show whether the new filters were truly safer, said John Britton, of Nottingham University, who is an expert in analysing data on respiratory disease. "It's a big maybe," he noted.

Anti-smoking campaigners in the US said the product would just be "swapping one carcinogenic product for another". And any company that used the filters would face the legal difficulty of promoting the product as safer than "standard" cigarettes, which would require collecting years of clinical data. "Otherwise it's like selling a Volvo but not being able to tell people why they would want to drive one," said David Sweanor, legal adviser to the Canadian Smoking and Health Action Foundation.

Tobacco companies pursued several "harm-reduction" strategies for cigarettes, few of which were ever used. Among them were "low-carcinogen" tobacco, a device providing nicotine but only burning a small amount of tobacco, and "smokeless" cigarettes.

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