Cigarette Chiefs Steadfastly Deny Smoking Kills


In an often hostile exchange with congressional questioners Thursday, top tobacco company executives emphatically denied that they raise nicotine levels in cigarettes, insisted that nicotine is not addictive and said they remain unpersuaded that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease and other life-threatening ailments.

“We have looked at the data . . . (and) it does not convince me that smoking causes death,” said Andrew H. Tisch, chairman and chief executive officer of the Lorillard Tobacco Co.

But Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health and the environment, berated the executives for their failure to acknowledge what medical experts have documented scientifically for many years: that cigarettes are addictive and that they kill more than 400,000 Americans annually.


“That is an astounding, almost incomprehensible statistic,” Waxman said. “Imagine our nation’s outrage if two fully loaded jumbo jets crashed each day killing all aboard. Yet, that’s the same number of Americans that cigarettes kill every 24 hours.”

The tobacco executives, appearing together before Congress for the first time, did so largely to respond to growing reports that the industry manipulates the level of nicotine in cigarettes to maintain smokers’ addictions.

In recent months, momentum has been building on Capitol Hill and in other parts of the federal government to regulate cigarettes--a product that has remained virtually unregulated, unlike foods, drugs and almost all other items in the marketplace.

Food and Drug Administration officials recently announced that they believe the agency has the statutory authority to regulate cigarettes as drugs because of the addictive nature of nicotine, and the agency is actively exploring the possibility.

“This hearing marks the beginning of a new relationship between Congress and the tobacco companies,” Waxman said. “The old rules are out. The standards that apply to every other company are in.”

Tobacco companies have never acknowledged a link between cigarettes and health dangers and have maintained in lawsuits that smoking is not a matter of addiction but of freedom of choice.


Over and over again Thursday, industry officials denied that they manipulate nicotine levels to keep smokers addicted.

“We do not do anything to hook smokers or keep them hooked,” any more than coffee manufacturers manipulate caffeine, said James W. Johnston, chairman and chief executive officer of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. “This company is not engaged in some sinister plot to deceive the American smoker.”

Nicotine, he added, only “enhances the overall smoking experience.”

Nevertheless, all of the executives acknowledged that nicotine concentrations could be adjusted through blending different tobaccos--a practice that they said their companies all engage in when manufacturing cigarettes to accommodate different tastes.

“Yes, people will get different concentrations of nicotine in cigarettes depending on the blending process,” said Alexander W. Spears, vice chairman of Lorillard.

“Our smokers want a consistent product,” Johnston said, insisting that the formulas are followed to maintain the individual qualities of each particular brand. “Our smokers want Winstons to taste like Winstons--yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

They also denied that nicotine is an addictive substance--despite scientific evidence to the contrary--maintaining that more than 40 million Americans have been able to quit the habit.


“Smokers are not drug users or addicts and we do not appreciate being characterized as such,” said William Campbell, president of Philip Morris U.S.A. “I have a common-sense definition of addiction. I’m a smoker and I’m not a drug addict.”

After being pressured by several subcommittee members, the tobacco officials, who have been accused of suppressing research showing the addictive qualities of nicotine, reluctantly agreed to turn over all of their animal research, notes, internal memoranda and other data to the subcommittee.

In a testy exchange, Johnston refused to provide materials deemed “proprietary,” that is, containing trade secrets. He was met with the threat of a congressional subpoena.

“You will submit the data,” Waxman demanded.

Edward J. Horrigan Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Liggett Group Inc., said that he was “appalled by the conduct of the hearing,” and Campbell called the session “theater bordering on circus.”

The executives had at least one supporter on the subcommittee, Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., the body’s ranking Republican, who represents a district in the tobacco-growing state of Virginia.

“I am proud to represent the thousands of honest, hard-working men and women who earn their livelihood producing this legal product,” he said. “I am proud of all their positive contributions to my community. And I’ll be damned if they are sacrificed on the altar of political correctness.”