You are here
Last gasp: Big tobacco’s search for a ‘safer’ smoke
By Matthew Goodman
He smokes 60,000 cigarettes a year. He never has to nip outside to light up. He doesn’t have a hacking cough in the morning and he doesn’t get out of breath. Meet Robo-Puffer.
Deep inside Building 27, a glass and red-brick structure on an industrial complex in an otherwise quiet street in Southampton, this machine does nothing but inhale contentedly all day. Scientists feed 20 cigarettes at a time into the device and watch it smoke them down to the filter.
If Robo-Puffer puffs away like smoking is about to go out of style, that’s because it is. British American Tobacco, the FTSE 100 company that runs the lab, is using the machine to help develop what it hopes will be a safer cigarette, one that gives off fewer toxins than the traditional kind.
BAT’s endeavours are part of a multimillion-pound race by big tobacco manufacturers to develop new products that give smokers their fix without the harmful effects of smoking regular cigarettes.
As well as a “safer” cigarette, BAT is putting its money behind electronic cigarettes — e-cigarettes — and other novel “nicotine delivery devices”. But it is its work on producing a less harmful cigarette that has set industry tongues wagging.
Last month the company took the unusual step of publishing a scientific paper detailing the results of a clinical trial that showed how its newest cigarette produces fewer harmful by-products than the regular kind.
The industry’s efforts to produce the so-called safer cigarette have been under way for decades.
Manufacturers have mostly shrouded their work in secrecy, partly because implicit in the very concept of a safer cigarette is the notion that normal cigarettes are dangerous.
Some initiatives have gone public, although the industry would perhaps wish they had not.
The most striking of these was the fiasco surrounding NSM (new smoking material) cigarettes — containing a tobacco substitute — which were launched amid great fanfare in 1977 to a largely indifferent public. They were quickly withdrawn.
So it was a surprise when BAT revealed in its paper how 300 volunteers in Germany spent six weeks testing three different prototypes that “reduced levels of certain toxicants compared with conventional cigarettes”.
This achievement has not impressed health campaigners. Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Ash, the anti-smoking lobby group, said: “There is no safe level of smoking and many decades of attempts to produce a safer cigarette have proved completely fruitless.
“BAT’s latest efforts are futile and will make little difference to the enormous toll of disease and premature death caused by tobacco use.”
There is also the question of whether such a product would ever gain approval from the health watchdogs.
Industry analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch point out that low-tar and “light” cigarettes were found to offer no health benefits, making it improbable that regulators would be won over by the notion of a safer cigarette. “These products are unlikely to be successful in the foreseeable future,” the analysts wrote in a recent note to clients.
Even BAT, which has a market value of £68bn and, like most tobacco companies, has traded strongly through the recession, is circumspect about what it has actually proven.
Dr David O’Reilly, the company’s group scientific director, resists branding its creations “safer”. “We reduced the level of toxins,” he said. “Does it make them safe? We can’t say.”
SCIENCE and big tobacco have had a fraught relationship for decades. As far back as the 1950s, cigarette makers chose either to ignore or to reject evidence linking smoking with the onset of diseases such as lung cancer. That attitude lingered until fairly recently.
O’Reilly insists the leopard has changed its spots. “We are in a new world,” he said. “The industry in the 21st century is very different from the industry that initially denied smoking problems and had a troubled relationship with science.”
Indeed, BAT’s press release heralding its scientific paper prefaced the details with the statement: “The only way to be certain of avoiding the risks of smoking is not to smoke.”
But, with this changed reality, big manufacturers are sensing a new opportunity. For years their sole aim was to keep smokers hooked. Now they think they can also make money from those trying to kick the habit.
The industry watched from the sidelines as pharma companies made the running on selling nicotine patches and other “cessation devices”, while over the past decade a slew of smaller entrepreneurial outfits began marketing electronic cigarettes. The devices captured a small but growing slice of the market. That they were being pushed by smaller enterprises rather than big tobacco players arguably made health campaigners less queasy about accepting them.
“The fact that it’s not big tobacco driving e-cigarettes has made it more difficult to attack them,” said Jonathan Fell, an analyst at Deutsche Bank.
Precise figures are hard to come by but it is estimated that sales of e-cigarettes reached $500m (£328m) in America last year and €500m (£429m) in Europe. That compares with total worldwide cigarette sales of about $750bn.
Big tobacco would probably have been happy to leave this market to the little guys but its hand has been forced by regulators and governments cranking up the pressure on the industry.
A series of increasingly stringent restrictions on how tobacco companies can market their products, coupled with changing consumer lifestyles, have prompted the largest players to look at other opportunities.
This has led to a flurry of deals over the past year as manufacturers place their bets. BAT bought CN Creative, maker of Intellicig e-cigarettes, while America’s Lorillard acquired Blu, a rival brand.
Japan Tobacco bought a stake in Ploom, a maker of substitute smoking devices, and Britain’s Imperial Tobacco is backing an as yet unnamed e-cigarette company, although it said this has not involved buying an equity stake.
BAT has predicted that e-cigarettes and other nicotine delivery devices could account for the equivalent of 40% of its sales within 20 years. Given that the group’s turnover reached almost £16bn last year, the scale of the opportunity is significant.
Despite all this corporate activity, tobacco scientists still harbour dreams of inventing a safer cigarette. Imperial Tobacco said it is continuing its research in this area: “It’s potentially very important.”
O’Reilly of BAT thinks the industry could, theoretically, develop in a similar manner to the car makers — if one company comes up with something less dangerous, it should become the industry standard rather than “creating specific cigarettes that become safer than others”.
The company has embarked on a second clinical study to examine the longer-term effects of its prototypes and expects to publish the results early next year.
Not all the main manufacturers are convinced that this is the way ahead, however. Philip Morris International (PMI), maker of Marlboro, thinks it would deliver only “marginal” benefits and is pursuing alternative strategies.
IN 1980, Superman faced a new and deadly foe. Public health officials developed a series of advertisements featuring the man of steel battling a dastardly villain by the name of Nick O’Teen.
They proved highly successful in preaching the evils of smoking to schoolchildren on both sides of the Atlantic, and helped to foster the idea that nicotine was the most lethal substance within cigarettes.
Today, that notion has been turned on its head in the battle to persuade smokers to quit. While nicotine is certainly the substance that makes cigarettes addictive, campaigners accept that it is not the component that does the real damage. It is the tar and other by-products of burning tobacco that are most harmful.
Organisations such as Britain’s National Institute for Health & Care Excellence now say, in effect, that the priority should be to stop smokers lighting up — and if that means they get their nicotine hit by other means, so be it.
It is this pragmatic approach that has opened the floodgates for entrepreneurs who are trying to develop new ways to encourage smokers to change their ways.
E-cigarettes have quickly become the most popular of this new generation of devices, despite some initial reservations about the gadgets on the part of America’s Food and Drug Administration, an influential watchdog, and the prospect of tighter regulation in the European Union. E-cigarettes are banned in some countries, including Austria, Belgium, Brazil and Thailand.
Several other solutions are waiting in the wings. This amounts to as much innovation as the industry has seen in a long time.
“Tobacco has been around since Sir Walter Raleigh’s day, but apart from the switch from pipes to cigarettes there has not been much change for some time,” said Paul Triniman, chief executive of Kind Consumer, one of a number of young companies that are producing novel nicotine delivery devices.
The firm has created a cigarette-shaped aerosol that delivers a burst of nicotine via a breath-operated valve.
Kind Consumer, which is supported by BAT and counts Sir Terry Leahy among its investors, has submitted its device to Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency for approval.
Philip Morris is working on three new gadgets. It spent $250m last year developing them and expects to invest a further €500m to build a plant in Europe to make the devices, which it hopes will be on the market by 2017.
The most advanced of the three will see real tobacco heated — but not burnt — by a special holder. “We are trying to come up with products that come as close to the experience of conventional cigarettes as possible,” said Anne Edwards of PMI.
It will be some time before any of this takes off. “In the next 10 years, [harm reduction products] are unlikely to be a really material proportion of tobacco companies’ profits,” said Fell at Deutsche Bank. “In the longer term they have the potential to be very important.”
And, while we wait, Robo-Puffer will keep on smoking.
Glaxo’s cough mixture
Glaxo Smith Kline is behind some of the leading brands of nicotine patches and gum. But Britain’s biggest drug company also hopes to score a success with a new drug designed to treat lung conditions such as smoker’s cough.
Last week it successfully negotiated the first stage towards getting regulatory approval for Breo, a once-a-day treatment for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
A key committee of America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advised the watchdog to approve the drug. The FDA is likely to decide by the end of this year whether to accept the proposal.
Patrick Vallance, the president of pharmaceuticals research and development, at Glaxo, described the recommendation, by a 9-4 vote, as a “crucial first step” towards securing approval for the drug.
If it gets the green light from the FDA, doctors in America will be free to prescribe Breo. Glaxo will need to gain separate approval from regulators on this side of the Atlantic before it can be prescribed in Britain.
The City regarded the FDA vote as a positive step, sending shares in Glaxo up 3% to an 11-year high of £16.58 last Thursday, the day the drug giant announced the news.
It is not hard to see why new treatments, whether drugs or devices designed to curb smoking, are needed. Health experts estimate that 100,000 people die every year from smoking-related diseases in Britain.
It is thought that smoking accounts for more than a third of deaths related to respiratory conditions.
About 10m adults in Britain — 21% of men and 19% of women — still smoke. This compares with 51% of men and 41% of women in 1974.
The Mad Men days of guilt-free smoking (BBC)