Feb. 15, 2000 -- One tobacco company has found a way to produce a cigarette that smokes just like the old stand-by, but with fewer cancer-causing agents. In fact, the cigarettes will soon be virtually free of the addictive agent nicotine as well as nitrosamines, another type of carcinogen found in tobacco.
Is this really good news for smokers? Is this the first safe cigarette?
"There is no such thing as a safe cigarette, at least not in our world," says Brandy Bergman, a spokesman for Vector Group, parent company of the discount-cigarette maker Liggett Group. "We cannot make any health claims at this point."
However, Bergman tells WebMD, "we believe this new technology can reduce levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) compounds, which are recognized by the scientific community to be the most serious cancer-causing agents in tobacco."
The complex process -- which has only been laboratory-tested thus far -- seems to reduce PAH levels by more than 70%, which many studies have shown are below the threshold that causes carcinomas, says Bergman. "While the process does nothing for emphysema, it does nothing for heart disease, it doesn't create a safe cigarette, it eliminates the most serious cancer-causing agents. And that, we believe, is a huge development."
The process was actually developed and tested in animal studies in the 1970s, but only until recent refinements were made have scientists been able to conduct multiple accurate tests to confirm their findings, says Bergman. Additional tests will be conducted by independent laboratories in order to obtain FDA approval.
"The new cigarettes smoke, taste, light just like normal cigarettes," Bergman tells WebMD. "They will be available later this year, subject to independent laboratory verification."
In another project, Vector has also developed a genetically engineered tobacco that contains virtually no nicotine, the addictive agent in tobacco, says Bergman. The tobacco also contains little of the cancer-causing agents nitrosamines, which is not considered to be as highly carcinogenic as PAH.
The cigarette -- called Omni -- is scheduled for launch next year, Bergman tells WebMD. "The goal of course is to combine the two products and come up with a cigarette that, while not safe, will give smokers a better choice."
"Interesting -- but certainly not safe," says Joseph R. Landolph, PhD, associate professor of molecular biology, immunology, and pathology at the University of Southern California's Norris Cancer Center.
Think of cigarette smoking as a potpourri, from the French for "rotten pot," Landolph tells WebMD. "It's a brew of things. Tobacco smoke contains more than 3,900 chemicals, and 40 of them have been found carcinogenic in animal studies, including PAH and the tars.
"The more they take out, the more they reduce the risk; it's true," says Landolph. "They say they have gotten nitrosamines out, too -- those are also very bad actors, powerful carcinogens, so that's helpful. The question is, what's left in there? And what does the mixture do? The mixture is very complex and when you mix chemicals, they can cause additive carcinogenic effects."
One worry about modifying cigarettes is that "it's basically an experiment," Landolph tells WebMD. "It's going to take decades to prove definitely whether or not they are carcinogenic. As always, the best way to be safe is not to smoke it at all."