Tobacco wars heat up again on Capitol Hill

April 14, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The war against tobacco escalated to a new level yesterday with the release of documents that appear to contradict the industry's oft-stated insistence that it does not manipulate nicotine levels in cigarettes.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat who is Capitol Hill's leading tobacco critic and chairman of a key House health subcommittee, released a 1981 report written by a top tobacco company executive describing how higher nicotine levels can be achieved in cigarettes by using specific blends of tobacco and suggesting that those blends should be added to low-tar cigarettes to enhance significantly their nicotine content.

Yet, that same official, Alexander W. Spears, vice chairman and chief operating officer for Lorillard Tobacco Co., said in congressional testimony March 25 that "we do not set nicotine levels for particular brands of cigarettes."

The issue has been an especially controversial one because of the highly addictive nature of nicotine.

"Once again, tobacco industry representatives have not only withheld information, but they have misrepresented the truth," Mr. Waxman said at a news conference.

But Mr. Spears said in a statement that Mr. Waxman "made a serious error in reasoning after reading my 1981 paper -- that is, he assumed that cigarettes with higher concentrations of nicotine in the tobacco result in higher yields of nicotine in tobacco smoke. . . . That assumption is incorrect."

Meanwhile, after pressure from Congress, the tobacco industry yesterday released a heretofore secret list of chemical additives in cigarettes.

R.J. Reynolds, which disseminated the list on behalf of six major U.S. companies, said in a statement that the additives "are virtually the same as those found in many everyday foods and are not hazardous under the conditions of use."

But Jim O'Hara, a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration -- which is studying the controversial issue of whether cigarettes should be regulated as drugs -- said the industry was, in effect, "comparing apples with oranges" by saying the ingredients were safe because they were routinely added to foods.

In foods, such additives "are not burned or inhaled," Mr. O'Hara said.

"This doesn't say they are safe -- or unsafe," he added. "It just doesn't speak to the safety issue at all when these additives are used in cigarettes."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which has been studying cigarette additives, said the list was difficult to assess without knowing the specific amounts that are added or the recipes of individual brands.

"Based on the information we have, we can't come to any conclusions," said Kent Taylor, a spokesman for the agency.

Mr. Spears, who is scheduled to appear today with other high-ranking tobacco industry officials before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health, which is chaired by Mr. Waxman, was very specific in his 1981 article. He described how nicotine levels could be heightened in low-tar cigarettes by using more of the higher nicotine-containing tobaccos in the blending process.

"The American people are entitled to know what's going on here," Mr. Waxman said.

"How do the tobacco companies maintain nicotine in tobacco at sufficient levels to sustain addiction? What other methods are used to control nicotine levels? The time for straight answers is here."

Mr. Spears refuted allegations yesterday by Mr. Waxman and by FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler that companies may be adding nicotine to cigarettes, and called tobacco blending "a centuries-old process that is clearly documented in the published literature."

The claims made by Mr. Waxman were "based on misinformation and misunderstandings," Mr. Spears said.

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