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Revealed: the nicotine fix

IIn experiments a tobacco firm 'spiked' cigarettes with an extra shot of the addictive drug, reports Peter Pringle
THE TOBACCO manufacturer Gallaher has admitted developing a process to add extra nicotine to cigarettes to keep smokers "satisfied".

In an ingenious method to add nicotine without blending in a higher nicotine leaf, Gallaher sprayed invisible micron-sized dots packed with nicotine on to the inside of cigarette papers. As the dots were exposed to moisture in the tobacco, or to the burning tip of the cigarette, they broke down and released an extra jolt of nicotine.

The process is likely to be explored in court as Gallaher and the other British tobacco giant, Imperial, faceBritain's first group-action lawsuit on behalf of smokers who have developed lung cancer. The 53 smokers claim that the manufacturers have known since the 1960s how to make less dangerous cigarettes, but have failed to do so.

Gallaher says it never marketed the cigarettes, that the nicotine dot development was only "experimental", and that it concluded the process "wasn't an appropriate way of using nicotine".

But, in the 1980s, Gallaher contracted with a Warrington chemical plant, J D Campbell & Sons Ltd, to produce the nicotine salt used in the micron dot method. According to former employees, Campbell produced about 30 batches containing enough nicotine to make 400 million cigarettes.

Gallaher declined to provide production figures, or say what happened to the cigarettes that were made, saying it had never marketed a product with added nicotine. However, it said that the development of the "nicotine additive printing" (NAP) process was in accordance with the Government's belief, in 1983, that smokers of middle-tar cigarettes should be encouraged to move to low-tar products.

"Gallaher did a lot of trials and went to great expense," said a former Campbell's employee.

Martyn Day, the plaintiffs' lead solicitor in the group action, said: "It is difficult to understand why they were trying to keep nicotine at a certain level if they do not accept that smokers need that level of nicotine to maintain their addiction." Gallaher, like other tobacco companies, says nicotine is not addictive.

The NAP method is revealed in a series of Gallaher patents that were filed in Britain and the United States between 1978 and 1987. The nicotine is added, says one of the patents, "in order to improve ... the satisfaction provided to the smoker". Another, in a similar vein, says the invention is "concerned with the application of additives - and physiological agents such as nicotine - in order to improve, or help to improve, the satisfaction provided to the smoker".

"Satisfaction" is the tobacco industry's euphemism for the harsh taste of nicotine in cigarette smoke and the action of nicotine on the brain.

In 1994, US government officials discovered American tobacco companies had filed a series of patents for adding nicotine. The companies countered that the existence of the patents did not mean the experiments were put into production, merely that the method was investigated. No company has been found engaging in production of a method to raise nicotine levels by adding nicotine.

The Gallaher method was invented by researchers at the Battelle Laboratories in Geneva, where they used special invisible inks to carry the nicotine, and advanced silk-screen printing techniques. The leading Swiss researcher, Alfred Schweizer, now retired, says he invented the process under contract to Gallaher in the late Seventies and Eighties. "We [at Battelle] had a gentlemen's agreement with Gallaher to give them our research. We received no separate royalties for the work," he said. He did not know his invention had been put into production.

In the 1980s, British and American tobacco companies were under increasing government pressure to reduce the harmful "tar" content of cigarette smoke. In 1983, the government's Independent Scientific Committee on Smoking and Health recommended that tobacco companies should lower tar and also nicotine levels because this would "reduce dependence on tobacco and thus help smokers give up". The committee made one exception. They urged companies to encourage smokers of middle-tar cigarettes to smoke low-tar ones by producing brands with "proportionately higher" nicotine yields.

But the companies found that when they reduced the tar, they also reduced the nicotine, and risked losing consumers. "It is difficult," wrote the Gallaher patent applicants, "to reduce the tar yield without at the same time reducing the amount of desirable components made available to the smoker."

If they were to keep smokers "satisfied", they had to find a way of putting the nicotine back. Use of the dots, the inventors noted in the Gallaher patent, overcame several problems encountered in earlier methods of adding nicotine to the tobacco "rod", or to the paper.

Several big US and British tobacco companies have experimented with adding nicotine to finished cigarettes, either by spraying it on, injecting it into the wrapper or by including it in the filter tips. Nicotine is a highly volatile compound and has a short shelf-life, dissipating rapidly unless "fixed" in a chemical compound. The dots sealed the nicotine until exposed to moisture or heat. They also allowed the cigarette manufacturer to control the position on the cigarette at which the cigarette would deliver the most nicotine.

Dots placed at the front end of the "rod", for example, would mean the smoker would experience an extra jolt on the first few puffs on a cigarette. "The nicotine was profiled to provide more at the beginning than at the end of the smoke, so people who wanted a lower tar brand wouldn't stop after the first puff," said Jeff Jeffery, Gallaher's head of corporate affairs.