Firm secretly created potent tobacco

June 22, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- A major company secretly developed a genetically engineered tobacco that would more than double the amount of nicotine delivered in some cigarettes, the commissioner of food and drugs said yesterday.

The commissioner, Dr. David A. Kessler, told a congressional hearing that the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. secretly developed the tobacco and grew it in Brazil.

In May, the company had denied to an investigator for the Food and Drug Administration that it had engaged in "any breeding of tobacco for high or low nicotine levels," Dr. Kessler said.

But when confronted with evidence to the contrary Friday, the company conceded that it had at least 3 million pounds of the specially developed tobacco, named Y-1, in company warehouses in the United States.

Dr. Kessler also said yesterday that among the 599 ingredients added to tobacco, a list made public by the tobacco companies in April, were several ammonia compounds. In addition to other uses in cigarette manufacture, he said, the ammonia compounds increase the delivery of nicotine.

"It is our understanding," Dr. Kessler said, "that an experimental cigarette made of reconstituted tobacco treated with ammonia has almost double the nicotine transfer efficiency."

Nicotine is a naturally occurring component of tobacco smoke. Forty years ago it appeared in cigarettes at nearly three times the level it does today.

But as tar and other harmful components of cigarette smoke have been reduced, nicotine levels have also dropped. The companies say that when the levels drop too low, cigarettes are not as satisfying to smokers.

So they adjust nicotine levels, they have explained, by using other parts of the tobacco plant or tobacco blends. Dr. Kessler suggested yesterday that Brown & Williamson had gone beyond that.

Referring to yesterday's testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, Dr. Kessler said, "These findings lay to rest any notion that there is no manipulation and control of nicotine undertaken in the tobacco industry."

In a statement issued yesterday, Brown & Williamson said the FDA had exaggerated its work on the new tobacco plant and ignored information the company gave the agency.

The company said that the higher-potency tobacco was one of a variety of tobaccos blended into the unique recipes of each brand and that products using Y-1 had the same nicotine content as regular cigarettes or lower.

Last year, the company used the new tobacco in five brands of American cigarettes, including three labeled "light" or low-tar. The five brands are Viceroy King Size, Viceroy Lights King Size, Richland King Size, Richland Lights King Size and Raleigh Lights King Size. In light of concerns by the FDA about manipulation of nicotine, the company said, it had discontinued the use of Y-1 several weeks ago.

Dr. Kessler has suggested that his agency would consider regulating cigarettes as drugs if the FDA determined that cigarette makers intended that people should buy their products to satisfy what he called a "nicotine addiction."

Dr. Kessler testified that the FDA first learned of Y-1 in a Brazilian patent in 1993 for a new variety of flue-cured tobacco. "One sentence of its English translation caught our eye," he said. The sentence referred to the exceptionally high nicotine content of the tobacco.

FDA investigators found that Brown & Williamson had successfully developed the plant using seeds from a 1970s U.S. Department of Agriculture experiment that was later abandoned.

Dr. Kessler said the company took those seeds, made genetic alterations and produced a tobacco plant with the highest-known nicotine yield, 6.2 percent, compared with the 2.5 percent to 3 percent found naturally in flue-cured tobacco.

The company filed a U.S. patent application in 1991 and deposited samples of the seeds in the National Seed Storage Laboratory. The patent application was initially rejected, Dr. Kessler testified, but was refiled in February. On March 16, the company withdrew the appeal.

On June 10, Dr. Kessler said, his agency learned that the company that had helped develop the tobacco, the DNA Plant Technology Corp. of Oakland, Calif., "told us that it had been authorized by Brown & Williamson to tell the FDA that Y-1 was never commercialized."

Only after the agency, through an investigation of patent documents and shipping records, came up with two U.S. Customs Service invoices showing that "more than a half-million pounds" of Y-1 tobacco had been shipped to Brown & Williamson on Sept. 21, 1992, did the company acknowledge that it had developed a more potent tobacco. It told the FDA it was storing 3.5 million to 4 million pounds of the tobacco in American warehouses.

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