Many people agree that cigarette smoking is the primary cause of preventable deaths, but it took a television broadcast on the ‘Day One’ program to begin an extensive investigation of the tobacco industry. The program alleged that the industry manipulates the levels of nicotine in cigarettes.
Just before the end of 1969, a Business Week writer doing a story about the effect of an impending TV and radio advertising blackout on the cigarette industry stumbled onto a fascinating tangent. “Earlier this year, admits one tobacco executive, his company `boosted the nicotine of most of our brands.’ The idea was to `hook’ smokers so that if advertising were to be banned entirely, the `need for a smoke’ would keep people puffing.” The only response prompted by this rather astonishing piece of news in an otherwise unsurprising article was a lone angry letter in the following issue from a woman who called the alleged practice “cynical” and “criminal.”
For the next twenty-five years, there was a resounding silence about this issue until ABC aired an expose titled “Smoke Screen” on its Day One news-magazine. Within weeks of the broadcast on February 28, 1994, Congressional hearings were under way to explore the program’s central charge: that tobacco companies deliberately fine-tune nicotine levels to keep millions of Americans addicted to cigarettes. Those eighteen minutes of videotape helped mobilize vast resources in government and private society to back what had been largely a guerrilla campaign by a ragtag band of activists to cut the toll from the number-one cause of preventable death in the country. As of now, the industry is contending with five federal grand juries, a well-funded national class-action suit on behalf of all addicted smokers, an antitrust investigation by the Justice Department into an alleged conspiracy to stifle development of a fire-safe cigarette, suits by the Attorneys General of five states to recover cigarette-related health costs, a Food and Drug Administration eager to toughen regulation vastly by treating cigarettes as drug-delivery devices and individual law-suits for everything from cancers related to secondhand smoke to deaths allegedly caused by asbestos filters.
Most of these attacks are centered around the nicotine manipulation charge first made by Day One. Given the immense impact of the broadcast, many were shocked when ABC settled a $10 billion suit filed by R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris. The network agreed that “Smoke Screen” should not have reported that manufacturers add “significant amounts of nicotine from outside sources.” Just why ABC settled is a mystery that may have had to do with legal-risk-shedding related to the company’s acquisition by Walt Disney. The media’s verdict has been that Day One pushed a great story one step too far when it claimed cigarette makers “artificially spike” the product with what does nicotine do.
Philip Morris immediately asserted that ABC’s apology debunked the nicotine manipulation charge. But the issue of whether every word in “Smoke Screen” would seem proper to a libel jury in Richmond, Virginia, was always different from the much larger question of whether the industry engineers its products to provide a drug.
In addition, the media disparaging of “Smoke Screen” was done without the benefit of tens of thousands of pages of internal Philip Morris documents turned over to ABC during the lawsuit and returned after the settlement, when all case records were sealed and a gag order imposed. Recent leaks of some of this information have made it clear that if “Smoke Screen” was wrong about anything at all, it wasn’t wrong about anything important.
The program was attacked for implying that the cigarette makers purchase nicotine-containing tobacco extract from firms called flavor houses and use it to boost or maintain nicotine levels in the reconstituted tobacco that is an important component of cigarettes. This “recon” normally has less nicotine and poorer flavor than ordinary tobacco leaf. In a lengthy memorandum based on the cigarette maker’s technical manuals and internal memos, ABC’s attorneys, Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, set out evidence that Philip Morris had in effect cut out the middleman and was running its own extract factory. Whatever the source of the extract, it was still adding nicotine to the product. Therefore, the heart of the broadcast was true. Wilmer, Cutler argued in a motion for summary judgment: “Philip Morris adds a nicotine-containing solution – manufactured from some other tobacco – to that original tobacco material or tobacco sheet. This bears repeating: The does nicotine cause cancer applied is derived from another source.”
If accurate, the ABC memo provides the most penetrating analysis of modern cigarette manufacturing ever made public. It shows that cigarettes are not chopped tobacco leaves rolled in paper but the end-product of a sophisticated, technology-intensive manufacturing process that uses numerous components from various sources – and controls nicotine at every phase.
According to this document, a key method of nicotine control is the use of reconstituted tobacco leaf, or R.L., a “chemically engineered” material that makes up about 25 percent of the tobacco in Philip Morris’s premium brands, Marlboro, Merit, Virginia Slims and Benson & Hedges. A facility known as Park 500 in Chester, a small town south of Richmond, churns out reconstituted leaf at a rate of 450,000 pounds a day.
Realizing that in many ways Park 500 was at the epicenter of the case, ABC lawyers were searching for anyone who would tell them more about it. They found at least one source and code-named him “W.” This contract employee for Philip Morris told the lawyers he was surprised the Day One broadcast didn’t mention Park 500, since he “knew that Philip Morris created the facility to assure that its cigarettes would provide smokers a consistent high.” W himself wasn’t particularly thrilled about being around nicotine. After a few hours of breathing fumes from nicotine-rich vats at one company lab, “he sometimes would have to find a bathroom and throw up.” (Nicotine is extremely toxic: A sixty-milligram dose is lethal, with a cigarette providing about a one-milligram jolt. By comparison, one adult-sized Tylenol tablet is 500 milligrams.)
Philip Morris went to some lengths to make sure that few people knew what Park 500 was doing. “It is a highly automated facility,” the lawyers reported W as saying. “The employees are highly segregated, with few employees knowing more than just their immediate area of concern.” W suggested that ABC “carefully analyze inputs and outputs” at the plant for evidence that “Philip Morris actually increases the concentration of nicotine in the remaining tobacco product that is processed into paper at the plant.” He also said that although Philip Morris claimed it doesn’t monitor nicotine during R.L. manufacture, it has a special machine to test the extract for nicotine and other substances at fifteen-minute intervals.
W suggested that if investigators analyzed cigarettes from years past, they would find that older cigarettes weren’t doctored as modern ones are. Many believe nicotine wasn’t always manipulated. R.J. Reynolds was one of the first to grind up stems, dust and other junk for filler. Philip Morris was a leader in using ammonia chemistry to heighten the “impact” of nicotine, so the smoker could get the same buzz from less of the drug. According to recently leaked documents from the files of competitor Brown & Williamson, the use of ammonia compounds formed “the soul” of Marlboro’s ever-widening appeal over the past thirty years, causing B&W and others to try to imitate it. Ammonia helped the industry solve a nagging chemical conundrum, which is that nicotine levels rise and fall as a function of tar. Now “light” cigarettes, almost two-thirds of the market, could pack a similar wallop to full-flavor brands. And the government’s tar and nicotine measuring machines, which don’t detect the effects of ammonia, would register no change.
Brown & Williamson’s parent company, British American Tobacco (B.A.T.), apparently wanted not only to get more bang out of their nicotine but some of the poisons out of the cigarette. To achieve this, B&W hired Jeffrey Wigand as vice president in charge of research and development in 1989. A Ph.D. in both endocrinology and biochemistry, he had spent much of his career at pharmaceutical and chemical companies like Pfizer, Merck and Union Carbide.
After leaving B&W in 1993, Wigand became a source for a 60 Minutes segment on tobacco and health. The interview with him was cut because of fears that the network would be sued for interfering with a draconian secrecy agreement Wigand had signed. (It was recently run on the program.) The 53-year-old Wigand, the highest-ranking executive ever to turn against the industry, has testified before at least two federal grand juries and to the Justice Department about alleged efforts to squelch development of a fire-safe cigarette. He was also deposed in a Mississippi lawsuit in which the state is seeking reimbursement for the cost of caring for indigents sickened by smoking.
That deposition was recently leaked to The Wall Street Journal, which posted it on the Internet. It strongly reinforces the idea that cigarette companies share an obsession with promoting consumer addiction. Wigand said that former B&W chief executive officer Thomas Sandefur, who testified to a Congressional committee that he didn’t believe nicotine was addictive, told him, “We’re in the nicotine delivery business and tar is nothing but negative baggage.”
Wigand’s deposition ranges over many topics, from the role of lawyers in sanitizing research results so plaintiffs’ attorneys and regulators would find no evidence that B&W knew cigarettes cause disease – one fifteen-page report of a B.A.T. scientific conference was cut to three pages – to how Brown & Williamson scotched its safer-cigarette project, one focus of which was to replace apparently hazardous additives, like glycerol, with less hazardous ones.
“Cigarettes are basically a needle, unfortunately a dirty needle, through which the drug nicotine is delivered. And he was hired to make the needle a little less dirty,” said Richard Scruggs, one of Wigand’s attorneys. “His plan was to understand through basic science the carcinogenic properties of the different additives and different components of cigarette smoke. And once they’re identified, he could remove some of them that may have been totally unnecessary.” Wigand’s other mission was to make a cigarette that was less likely to start fires.
Before he was sacked in 1993, apparently because of differences with Sandefur, Wigand encouraged research on the effects of inhaling various burning additives, which had never been properly done despite warnings by scientists that even seemingly wholesome substances can behave quite differently when smoked. Some of this work was carried out through British American Tobacco at its lab in Southampton, England. Some of it was contracted out by law firms such as Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., so that it could be claimed it had been done in “anticipation of litigation” (and thus was protected by the lawyer-client privilege) rather than as standard product research.
During the deposition, Wigand was asked point-blank by Ron Motley, an attorney for the State of Mississippi, “To your scientific knowledge, did Brown & Williamson ever engage in the manipulation of nicotine levels in tobacco products?”
Wigand replied unequivocally, “Yes, they did.” He then conducted a brief tour of the various ways this can be done, such as controlling the blend and treating the product with ammonia compounds, but he emphasized, “Number one is free use of reconstituted tobacco.” He said the company believed that a cigarette needed “from .4 to 1.2 milligrams of nicotine, in that range, to maintain smokers.”
To regulate cigarettes as drug delivery devices, the F.D.A. must prove not only that the tobacco companies adjust the nicotine level but that by doing so they intend to affect “the structure or any function” of the body. Enter researcher Victor DeNoble, another former cigarette-company employee turned critic. Like Wigand, DeNoble believed he had been hired to help make a safer cigarette. In 1980, Philip Morris gave him the task of identifying a nicotine substitute that would produce the same mild but addictive high without the irregular pulse and heart rate the drug can cause. DeNoble succeeded brilliantly. Yet four years later, he was called into a supervisor’s office and given two hours to shut down the lab and vacate the premises. DeNoble recalled one of the company’s lawyers telling him, “You’re making us look like a drug company. And we just can’t afford that.”
DeNoble was a postdoctoral fellow in behavioral pharmacology when he and his partner, Paul Mele, were lured to the Philip Morris Research Center in Richmond by the offer of a state-of-the-art laboratory and unlimited money. (DeNoble and Mele say that as a joke they once sent a request for $278,000 to do a nicotine experiment on the space shuttle. It came back approved.)
Working with up to 200 rats, they synthesized nicotine analogues, just as Philip Morris had hoped. All their work was top secret and was effectively deep-sixed when the lab was shut down in 1984. By that time, DeNoble and Mele had put Philip Morris so far ahead of the scientific curve that it took more than a decade for academic scientists to duplicate some of the experiments. That was fine with Philip Morris, since DeNoble and Mele’s studies helped prove beyond a reasonable doubt that nicotine is in a class with heroin and cocaine as a dependence-inducing chemical.
The first signs of trouble came when the two scientists performed a study that showed that the brain and the biochemistry of the body develop tolerance to increasingly higher doses of nicotine after an initial period of near-paralysis. “When we presented them that data, that was the first time they actually ordered us to do something – never do another tolerance study again,” said DeNoble. “The thing is, that exact study defines nicotine as an addictive drug, because that’s the primary criterion in the diagnostic manual for the American Psychiatric Association.”
So DeNoble and Mele did what any responsible scientist would do – they did as much tolerance research as they could, plus many other experiments. In 1983 the Cipollone suit was filed against Philip Morris and other tobacco companies, alleging that tobacco companies marketed a needlessly hazardous product and caused the death of a New Jersey woman. Also that year, three lawyers and a clerk turned up at the laboratory. Very politely, they asked DeNoble to walk them slowly through every experiment. The lawyers continued to visit for six months. DeNoble was also summoned to New York to brief the president of Philip Morris and his staff. “I presented all of my work, which was ongoing. And he only asked one question. And the question was, `Why should I risk a billion-dollar industry on rats pressing levers for nicotine?’ I just looked him straight in the face. I said, `I don’t know.'”
In November, Philip Morris’s new president, Shepard Pollack, actually strolled into the lab and asked DeNoble and Mele to give him and the company lawyer a tour. After seeing the self-administration experiment, in which a rat presses a lever to get nicotine, Pollack asked if that meant nicotine is addictive.
“Don’t answer that question,” the lawyer ordered DeNoble. But DeNoble assured him that, in fact, self-administration alone wasn’t enough to define addiction.
“And then the lawyer asks me a question. He goes, `Are these the same tests a government agency would use to define drug abuse?’ And I said, `Yeah. I was trained by NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse.’ He had a fit. He actually told Mr. Pollack, `Get out of here, we’re not going to talk anymore.’ And he pulled him out of the lab.”
Rather than fire the two scientists, which would look bad, Philip Morris gave them a “choice” – either quit or stay with the company as factory workers making cigarettes. A week after they quit, DeNoble was asked to return to the lab to open a safe. He found only a bare room. The cages, surgery tables, intravenous lines, filing cabinets, notebooks even the wiring connections – had been stripped.
Like Jeffrey Wigand, who now teaches in a high school, DeNoble gave up corporate science and wound up in the public sector, working with the retarded. And just as Wigand now faces legal attack by Brown & Williamson, the industry is likely to do its best to muzzle DeNoble, whose testimony was a dramatic highlight of the 1994 Congressional hearings into nicotine manipulation. DeNoble says the F.B.I. told him that Philip Morris had been following him for years, tape-recording and photographing his appearances before scientific and antismoking groups.
Both DeNoble and Wigand were convinced that what they knew was extremely dangerous to an industry that sells $250 billion worth of its product worldwide every year. The current barrage of attacks notwithstanding, few believe this wealthy cartel is in any economic jeopardy. But a dampening of tobacco’s public visibility through curbs on cigarette makers’ youth-oriented marketing remains possible, if the public demands it. Former industry insiders with hair-raising stories to tell, especially about the industry’s pandering to children, could help puncture the in-grained skepticism that smokers are victims of anything more sinister than weak wills. There are quite evidently some people who work for big tobacco, like Wigand, DeNoble and W, the informant in the ABC suit, who feel the sting of moral quandary for their part in the world’s most peculiar industry. ABC’s lawyers took note of this: “W told us that he thought the Philip Morris employees were `good churchgoing people,’ but that the company was responsible for killing people.”
All the tobacco companies categorically deny they manipulate nicotine. As for its reconstituted leaf (R.L.), Philip Morris reiterates the position it has taken since the Day One broadcast aired in 1994: that R.L. manufacture is a closed process in which some nicotine extracted during processing is re-added. “The nature of the process is to reduce levels of nicotine,” according to Michael York, an attorney for Philip Morris, who said there is a net loss of as must as 15 percent of the chemical.
York said the Park 500 plant does not measure nicotine in tobacco extract, and although the special machine mentioned by “W” is used, it measures levels of moisturizers, not nicotine. He said there is job “specialization” at Park 500, but not secrecy. York suggested W might be confusing Park 500 with a nearby plant that produced a de-nicotinized cigarette called Next that was a commercial failure. That plant did measure nicotine, he said.
ABC and the network’s lawyers refused to comment on any aspect of the libel case.
Philip Morris says Victor DeNoble’s work showed that nicotine is not truly addictive. The company charges that his story is full of distortions and denies that it has sought to protect scientific research from discovery in lawsuits.
Brown & Williamson has challenged the veracity of Jeffrey Wigand, asserting that Wigand denied any wrongdoing by the company when questioned in 1994 by the Justice Department. It suggests that his change of heart had to do with the role he played as a source and consultant for 60 Minutes.