Smokeless smoking is in the air

A new cigarette, said to be safer and almost smoke-free, will be marketed next year in the United States.

Faced with increasingly hostile attacks from anti-smoking groups and lawsuits from the victims of smoking, the American tobacco industry has decided to launch the ''reduced risk'' cigarette - even though it is similar to a brand that failed miserably six years ago because smokers did not like its flavour.

The new cigarette does not produce most of the cancer-causing tars that normal cigarettes do, and has an inoffensive odour, according to the R J Reynolds Company, which will be the first to market the brand next year. But it is likely to attract severe criticism from anti-smoking groups because it contains as much nicotine as normal cigarettes.

R J Reynolds says 95 per cent of the second-hand smoke produced by normal cigarettes is eliminated. In the last two years, 700 US cities and counties have introduced smoking bans in workplaces and restaurants because of the dangers of passive smoking. As yet, R J Reynolds is not making any detailed health claims because it does not have sufficient evidence to back them up. ''We cannot call this a safer cigarette,'' a spokesman said. ''We are concentrating on describing it as a product with fewer active compounds.''

R J Reynolds, America's second-largest tobacco company, with 30 per cent of the US cigarette market, has called the new brand ''Eclipse''. The company hopes it will shut out the competition, especially from the largest tobacco company, Philip Morris, which produces Marlboro and has 42 per cent of the $50bn ( pounds 32bn) market. Philip Morris is expected to launch its own ''safer'' cigarette at the end of next year.

The key difference in the new brand is at the lighted end. The first half-inch of the cigarette is a piece of charcoal wrapped in a fibreglass insulator. The charcoal burns at 900C - about the same as the flame on a normal cigarette - but because it is enclosed in the insulator it does not set the tobacco on fire. Instead, as the smoker inhales, the charcoal superheats the air, which then passes over the tobacco in the cigarette, carrying the flavour and the nicotine. The air then passes through a filter in the normal way. But there is little if any smoke and the cigarette does not burn down at all.

Burning issue, page 11