January 16, 2001
Vector Develops Cigarette With Almost No Nicotine
By GORDON FAIRCLOUGH
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Tobacco-industry maverick Vector Group Ltd. has developed a cigarette made
from genetically modified tobacco that contains virtually no nicotine.
Vector, the parent company of tiny discount-cigarette maker Liggett Group,
said it expects the new cigarettes, which could be used to wean people off
smoking, to be on store shelves early next year.
Bennett S. LeBow, Vector's chairman, said the new cigarette has the
potential to disrupt the U.S. cigarette market. "You capture market share,
and you reduce the size of the market" if people use it to quit, he said.
"It's a double-whammy product."
Mr. LeBow has been a thorn in the side of Big Tobacco since the mid-1990s,
when he broke ranks with the industry and agreed to settle lawsuits filed by
state governments seeking to recoup the costs of caring for sick smokers.
Vector's nicotine-free cigarettes are the latest entry in a high-stakes race
among tobacco companies to develop potentially less-hazardous cigarettes. In
this case, the cigarettes aren't addictive, so people theoretically would
smoke less. Vector, of Miami, also says the absence of nicotine prevents the
formation of cancer-causing chemicals called tobacco-specific nitrosamines,
although the cigarettes would still contain dozens of other carcinogens.
Other companies have focused on giving smokers the nicotine they crave,
while trying to reduce the harmful chemicals that come with it in smoke.
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc., of Winston-Salem, N.C., for example, is
selling its Eclipse cigarette, which primarily heats tobacco rather than
burning it, while Star Scientific Inc., of Chester, Va., is test marketing
Advance, a cigarette with reduced levels of nitrosamines.
More than a decade ago, Philip Morris Cos., New York, the nation's largest
cigarette maker, took nicotine out of regular tobacco using an extraction
process similar to the one used to decaffeinate coffee. It started test
marketing the very low nicotine cigarettes Next and Merit De-Nic in 1989,
but pulled them about a year later, after smokers complained about the
Vector says the taste of its tobacco hasn't suffered. The reason, the
company says, is that the tobacco leaves aren't treated. Rather, the plant
has been genetically modified to prevent the formation of nicotine. Vector's
Vector Tobacco unit owns the world-wide rights to a patented process devised
by a former North Carolina State University geneticist who now works for
Vector. The scientist, Mark Conkling, discovered a way to turn off a gene in
a tobacco plant's roots and block the plant's ability to produce nicotine.
Even if the cigarette tastes good, will smokers keep coming back if there is
no nicotine "buzz"? The company certainly thinks there will be a substantial
market for nonaddictive cigarettes. As evidence of potential demand,
executives cite studies showing that about three-quarters of smokers say
they would like to quit. Since Vector sells only about 1.5% of the
cigarettes smoked in the U.S., capturing even a modest part of the market
would translate into a big increase in sales for the company.
Jed E. Rose, a neuroscientist at Duke University Medical Center in Durham,
N.C., who specializes in nicotine addiction, has been using Vector's new
cigarettes in smoking-cessation studies. "They show promise as a potential
weaning tool to get smokers unhooked from their nicotine dependence," he
said. Mr. Rose said that about half the participants in his study were able
to switch from their regular cigarettes to Vector's very low-nicotine smokes
and that some smokers kept using the low-nicotine cigarettes for the entire
12-week duration of their part of the study.
Vector said testing continues and it intends to seek approval from the Food
and Drug Administration to sell the new cigarettes as a smoking-cessation
aid. Until then, Vector said it can't advertise the product specifically as
a tool to quit smoking and instead will focus on the theme of allowing
smokers to smoke because they want to, not because they have to.
Some public-health experts are critical of Vector's plans. "If they want to
put this out there as a bridge to cessation, they ought to do the right
tests to prove that it will actually help," said John Slade, a physician who
is director of the program on addictions at the School of Public Health of
New Jersey, of New Brunswick, N.J.
Get your FREE download of MSN Explorer at http://explorer.msn.com
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon May 28 2001 - 09:56:19 MDT