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Ex-Researcher Says Safer Cigarette Possible

According to a former tobacco industry scientist, consumers rejected a reduced risk cigarette that R.J. Reynolds spent $ 1 billion creating.

The Premier brand, which heated tobacco instead of burning it, yielded more than 90 percent fewer harmful chemicals than a conventional cigarette because of the difference in the chemical reaction, said William Farone, a former researcher for Reynolds competitor Philip Morris. Premier had less than a half percent of the market share. Reynolds also did biological testing of the Premier and compared it to a commercially available ultra-low brand, a move for which Farone praised Reynolds. Farone, who worked for Philip Morris from 1976 until he was fired for insubordination in 1984, testified for a second day today in a class-action lawsuit filed by some 250,000 healthy West Virginia smokers. The smokers are suing Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard for a health-screening program they say they deserve because the cigarette makers manufactured a defective product. The class consists of people who have smoked the equivalent of a pack a day for at least five years, but who are not yet sick. They want tests they say could lead to earlier diagnosis of the lung-related ailments they may develop.

Tobacco companies contend cigarettes are inherently risky but not defective. The companies also say smokers have long known the risks, and diagnostic tests would not change the outcome of lung cancer, emphysema or other chronic obstructive lung disorders. Under cross examination by Reynolds attorney Jeff Furr, Farone agreed the company has devoted enormous financial resources and talent to its attempts to develop a safer cigarette. The Premier was as close the industry has come, Farone said. "It still had carcinogens but it was a big step in the right direction," he said. After the failure of Premier, Reynolds tried again with a cigarette called Eclipse, which is now being sold on the Internet and test-marketed in cities across the country. Eclipse contains a small amount of tobacco that is burned, so Farone characterized it as a small step backward. He said, however, that biological tests Reynolds conducted found the Eclipse has far lower levels of harmful chemicals than current mainstream brands. Farone also said it is clear that R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard each to some extent has defied a so-called gentleman's agreement in which tobacco companies vowed not to compete against each other on the grounds of cigarette safety.

Under that agreement, tobacco companies had pledged to do no biological testing in the United States on finished products sold to consumers. However, industry documents a lawyer showed Farone made clear that companies were on at least some occasions ignoring that part of the pact. Farone testified Tuesday that Philip Morris and three other companies failed to perform biological tests on finished products. Without such testing, the companies cannot say whether reduced tar levels or other changes in formula and design have made their products any safer, he said.

Although no cigarette is risk-free, Farone said there are dozens of ways to alter its design and content. While at Philip Morris, Farone said he developed a variety of projects that could have led to development of a safer cigarette, including changes in tobacco farming and curing practices, the use of synthetic filler to replace tobacco and genetic modification of tobacco. The company rejected them all, he said.

Ideally, Farone testified, a safer cigarette would have virtually no tar, and the companies would increase nicotine levels so it continued to satisfy smokers. Philip Morris made a very low-tar cigarette in 1980, the Cambridge, but the company did not raise the nicotine levels. Consumers rejected it. "When tar delivery got so low, the manufacturers should have added nicotine to encourage people to use the low-tar product," he said. "I think it's a very logical and plausible thing to do." Although there are more efficient ways to deliver nicotine than smoking, Farone said the industry shied away from doing anything that would risk putting their operations under the regulation of the Food and Drug Administration.

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