Aside from not lighting up at all, cigarettes developed to reduce a smoker’s exposure to tobacco’s toxins may be the best way to reduce health risks from smoking.
Smoking continues to be one of the leading causes of preventable disease and death in the U.S., and smokers on average die 13 to 14 years earlier than nonsmokers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 69% of smokers want to quit for good, but the addictive effects of nicotine make that a challenge.
Which is why researchers have been focused on creating alternative cigarettes that can reduce a smoker’s exposure to some of the most toxic compounds in tobacco and cigarette smoke, in an effort to reduce the health costs associated with smoking. Over the past decade, options like e-cigarettes, which deliver lower doses of nicotine, are entering the market as a way to help smokers to quit or reduce how much they smoke. And with increasing pressure from the public-health sector to lower smoking rates, even cigarette makers are starting to develop alternatives that would keep sales of the products at profitable levels. Scientists from the research-and-development branch of British American Tobacco (BAT), which oversees more than 200 smoking brands, for example, have created prototypes of cigarettes that reduce exposure to some — but not all — toxicants in smoke. The researchers then tested their cigarettes on 300 healthy adults and found the products lowered the smokers’ exposure to the dangerous toxins.
The researchers created three different sample cigarettes using different toxin-reducing technologies. They explain the process:
The prototype cigarettes incorporate several toxicant-reducing technologies: two related to the tobacco and two in the filter. A tobacco-processing technique employs an enzyme to remove proteins and polyphenols that become toxicants when burned. An inert tobacco substitute containing calcium carbonate and glycerol was also added, which dilutes the smoke.
The filter technologies include a resin that filters out aldehydes produced as a result of burning sugars in the tobacco and a novel activated carbon with an internal nanostructure optimised for trapping certain volatile smoke toxicants.
To test the cigarettes, the scientists compared levels of tobacco toxins in the urine and saliva of a group of smokers with those of a group of 50 who didn’t smoke. The nonsmokers provided a baseline level of exposure to the compounds in the environment; anything above those levels could be attributed to the cigarettes. The 250 smokers were randomly assigned into a control or test group. All the smokers smoked a regular cigarette for two weeks and a day so baseline measurements could be made. Those in the control group then continued to smoke the regular cigarette for an additional four weeks, while the test group switched to the researchers’ experimental cigarettes for four weeks. All the participants had their urine and saliva tested for chemical compounds that are indicators for tobacco exposure.
Compared with the participants who smoked regular cigarettes, the individuals using the test cigarettes showed lower amounts of the toxins in their urine or saliva, some by more than 50%. The cigarettes, the researchers report in Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, successfully reduced tobacco-specific nitrosamines by around 90% and about a 40% reduction in exposure to the carcinogens 3- and 4-aminobiphenyl.
That’s a start, but the researchers admit that not all the cigarette toxins were reduced, and that they don’t have data to support that the amount by which they lowered exposure would translate into health benefits for smokers. “Many more scientific studies and tests, some of which are still being developed, will be required to determine whether the use of these technologies is likely to result in products posing lower health risks. In the meantime, and in the absence of sufficient scientific proof, we need to engage with the external regulatory and scientific communities to determine if and how toxicant-reducing technologies should be applied to existing commercial products and how this can be supported by regulation,” said David O’Reilly, group scientific director at BAT in a statement.
BAT, an international tobacco group that makes not only cigarettes but also cigarillos and pipe tobacco, says it is conducting a longer, six-month follow-up trial of its experimental cigarette. According to the Financial Times, U.S. tobacco company Philip Morris International is also conducting a similar but smaller study.
Marina Murphy, the international scientific-affairs manager of BAT, says the company is planning on additional studies to determine the long-term effects of smoking the alternative products. “We do not know if the reductions can be maintained over the long term. When you make these changes, there is a possibly you will change how people smoke. You don’t want to change something in the tobacco smoke and have them smoke more.”
So far, however, they seem to be moving in the right direction.