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Government Did Breeding Research to Lower Tar, Keep Nicotine Steady With PM-Tobacco Probe

June 24, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In the 1970s, government scientists carried out research aimed at producing cigarettes with lower tar but with enough nicotine to keep smokers satisfied.

The purpose of the research was to reduce cigarette tar, the sticky residue from burning tobacco, linked to lung cancer and other illnesses. But, the reasoning went, a low-tar cigarette wouldn’t do much good if people smoked more of them to satisfy their nicotine hunger.

It was no secret then that smokers craved nicotine. But the Food and Drug Administration claims that Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. turned that research upside-down to put more addictive nicotine in cigarettes.

That the Agriculture Department spent any money to promote this dangerous but economically significant cash crop may offend taxpayers. In fact, Congress may vote this summer to cut off such funding, worth up to $3.7 million in 1994.

Still, government scientists could only speculate about the commercial applications of their work over the years, said Harvey W. Spurr Jr., head of the department’s Tobacco Research Laboratory in Oxford, N.C.

And even though the department did research on varying the nicotine content of tobacco, it never bred a plant with higher nicotine than what occurs naturally, he said.

″I don’t know of any time that we did research on high-nicotine tobacco,″ Spurr added. ″We did research on low nicotine tobacco.″

Research published in 1977 by Spurr’s predecessor, James F. Chaplin, states that the department had begun research 10 years earlier on transferring low- nicotine genes into flue-cured tobacco. Flue-cured tobacco, grown in the Carolinas, is blended with burley tobacco, grown in Kentucky, Tennessee and elsewhere and some Turkish tobacco to make cigarettes.

The aim was to find out whether nicotine could be lowered without affecting flavor and aroma. It could, but the cigarette ″would lack the stimulating effect of nicotine,″ Chaplin noted.

Surgeon General Luther Terry had issued his report in 1964 connecting cigarette smoking with lung cancer in men. But no one in the department now knows why the department began research in 1967 to lower nicotine in cigarettes.

Chaplin, since retired, was traveling Thursday and couldn’t be immediately reached.

By the mid-1970s, the department had clear instructions to find ways to cut the tar and nicotine in tobacco, Spurr said.

Chaplin noted in his research that ″the development of lines with varying levels of nicotine are also of interest because of the importance ascribed to the nicotine-tar ratio.″

That meant breeding a wild, higher-nicotine relative of the tobacco plant with a lower-tar tobacco plant, which is what Chaplin did.

″It is conceivable that in producing low tar cigarettes it would be necessary to keep the nicotine levels constant,″ Chaplin wrote, introducing his research on breeding tobacco to vary its nicotine content.

″According to this reasoning, if the nicotine in the leaf were constant, assuming the tar levels were reduced, one could reduce the tar level considerably by filters or other means while still maintaining a given level of nicotine in the smoke,″ he wrote.

When the Food and Drug Administration recently asked Brown & Williamson why it was interested in a higher-nicotine tobacco, the company used the same line of reasoning: It wanted to compensate for the lower tar, FDA Commissioner David Kessler told Congress this week.

Chaplin said tobacco could be bred with nicotine levels of between 0.2 percent and 4.0 percent, within the normal range for flue-cured tobacco. The tobacco with genes from its wild relative, Nicotiana rustica, never grew well.

But the tobacco company was able to build on that research and produce a hardy tobacco in South America with a 6 percent nicotine content, the FDA said. Brazil’s largest tobacco exporter, Souza Cruz, confirmed on Thursday that it shipped 850 tons of the so-called Y-1 tobacco to Brown and Williamson in 1991 and an additional 253 tons in 1992.

But Spurr remembers the other side of the discussion, when he and his co- workers speculated about what tobacco companies wanted.

″The other thing we said, ’Companies make their money from selling cigarettes,‴ Spurr recalls. ″If a smoker has to smoke more to get his nicotine, he’s going to spend more money.″

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