science 11.1.2018 8:00

Industry looking for ways to reduce harmful effects of tobacco use

Ljubljana, 11 January - Faced with rising general awareness about the harmful effects of smoking, the global tobacco industry has started undergoing a transition in recent years. Tobacco giants are investing heavily in research meant to develop less harmful alternatives to cigarettes.

According to the National Institute of Public Health, almost 3,600 people in Slovenia die each year, or almost ten each day, as a result of smoking-related diseases. A quarter die before the age of 60 and smoking causes more deaths than accidents, suicides, alcohol, drugs and AIDS combined.

About 23% of people in Slovenia aged between 25 and 74 smoke, 26% used to smoke, while 51% never smoked. At 25%, the share of smokers is higher among men compared to women by 4 percentage points.

The World Health Organisation projects there will be more than 1 billion smokers worldwide by 2025, while those indulging are increasingly looking for less harmful alternatives to cigarettes.

This has driven the development of products such as electronic cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products, which satisfy the craving for nicotine while reportedly containing lower levels of cancer-causing toxins.

Tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI) has been parts of this trend, having started researching this field at a special centre it established in Switzerland in 2009. More than 400 scientists and engineers work at the centre and also publish their findings in science journals.

The results have led to the corporation, which recorded almost EUR 27bn in revenue last year, completely changing its business model, as reflected in its slogan Designing a Smoke Free Future.

The focus is on tobacco products that do not burn tobacco but heat it to around 350 degrees Celsius. Maurice Smith of PMI explained that the company has had to prove that the new product reduces health risks while also being an acceptable alternative for smokers.

Metka Filipič, a leading Slovenian toxicologist who works at the National Institute for Biology, explained that most of the harmful substances during smoking are generated by burning tobacco and cigarette paper.

She said research has confirmed that the levels of some toxins are substantially lower when tobacco is heated, while some toxins are not created at all.

According to PMI's scientists, the levels of most potential harmful chemicals in the aerosol created by the company's smoke-free products are on average 90-95% lower than in the smoke of cigarettes. Cytotoxicity and genotoxicity are also reported to be about 90% lower on average.

Animal testing has shown that toxicity is reduced above all for respiratory organs. Similar findings were reportedly made as regards the effects related to nicotine exposure.

Filipič noted such products could thus entail a lower risk for cancer. "They still contain certain cancer-causing substances, but at much lower levels".

The smoke-free products still contain nicotine, which affects the brain roughly eight seconds after inhalation.

British scientist Mike Russell was among the first to claim people smoke because of nicotine while they die because of tar, which helped pave the way for products such as nicotine gum and patches.

Filipič warned that nicotine is not only the main reason for addiction but harmful in itself too. It contains cancer-causing substances such as N-Nitrosonornicotine and other tobacco-specific nitrosamines that are addictive.

Meanwhile, Smith stressed that experts agree that nicotine, although addictive and not without risks, is not the primary reason for smoking-related diseases.

As regards the comparison between smoke-free tobacco products and products like tobacco chewing gum, Filipič said smokers feel more attracted to the former, since they involve an interval-based administration of nicotine doses, which is preferred by their brain and bodies.

PMI strives to back the transition to the alternative products, which it believes will be the future of tobacco use, with scientific findings and PMI scientists also attended two conferences in Slovenia in September - the Slovenian Biotechnical Conference and Slovenian Chemistry Days.

Filipič finds the extensive corporate studies published in international magazines credible, arguing the corporations "have money and it is only right they invest in this type of research, which is extremely expensive".

"However, the question is whether they also publish the results of studies that reveal shortcomings and risks. The possibility should also exist for research independent of the industry, which of course means public funding would need to be provided," she added.

The National Institute of Public Health is also calling for independent research, pointing out that makers of tobacco products have a long history of "concealing data and misleading the public regarding the harmful affects".