1996National Reporting

Phillip Morris Memo Likens Nicotine to Cocaine

Alix M. Freedman
December 8, 1995

Tobacco-company executives have long maintained that people smoke because they enjoy the taste and sensation. The industry publicly rejects the allegation that cigarettes function primarily as nicotine dispensers.

But with unprecedented bluntness, an internal Philip Morris Cos. draft report freely acknowledges what critics have charged: Cigarettes are a "nicotine delivery system"; the main reason people smoke is to get nicotine into their bodies; and nicotine is chemically "similar" to such drugs as cocaine.

The confidential internal document, which is undated but cites data from as recently as 1992, is a proposal for a "safer" cigarette with the code name Table. Steven Parrish, Philip Morris's top spokesman, says the document was written by a nonscientist and doesn't reflect the views of the company on nicotine or smoking. An individual at the company further explains that the task force working on Project Table disbanded in late 1992 after making a presentation to senior management.

Public-health officials say that information about the cigarette project, while intriguing, is less important to regulators than the draft report's extraordinary summary of why people smoke and how nicotine affects the brain.

This is because the role of nicotine is central to current attacks on the industry by class-action lawyers and federal regulators. Plaintiffs' attorneys and four state governments have filed lawsuits alleging that tobacco companies have known for years that smoking is addictive but have hidden this information from the public. And the Food and Drug Administration is seeking for the first time to regulate cigarettes as drugs, arguing that cigarettes' main function is to supply nicotine to smokers. Government scientists say nicotine is the addictive component in cigarettes, a conclusion that the industry rejects.

In congressional testimony and other public statements, top cigarette-company executives have denied the FDA's allegation about cigarettes' chief purpose. The Philip Morris document, however, appears to lend some support to the claim by asserting that "the primary reason" people smoke is "to deliver nicotine into their bodies."

The 15-page Philip Morris draft report likens nicotine to a drug in both its composition and its effects on the brain. In calling nicotine a "similar, organic chemical" to the drugs cocaine, morphine, quinine and atropine, the document states that "while each of these substances can be used to affect human physiology, nicotine has a particularly broad range of influence."

Government and independent scientists say they are astonished at what they regard as admissions in an internal document of the nation's biggest cigarette maker. But they say they have no quibble with the draft report's statements about nicotine and smoking.

The draft report is a "blunt recognition of what public-health scientists have been saying all along -- that the critical effects of nicotine are those in the brain and not in the mouth," says Jack Henningfield, chief of the pharmacology branch at the government's National Institute on Drug Abuse. Neal Benowitz, a nicotine-research specialist at the University of California in San Francisco, says, "This sounds like an excerpt from the Surgeon General's report. This is very much the current view on the role of nicotine acting on the brain to produce addiction."

Nicotine travels to the brain about eight to 10 seconds after a smoker inhales and "alters the state of the smoker," according to the Philip Morris draft report. Nicotine does this, it says, by becoming both a neurotransmitter, a chemical substance that transmits signals from one nerve cell to another, and a stimulant. "Nicotine mimics the body's most crucial neurotransmitter, acetycholine (ACH), which controls heart rate and message sending within the brain," the draft report states.

In this way, the document continues, "nicotine is used to change psychological states leading to enhanced mental performance and relaxation." The draft report adds that "a little nicotine seems to stimulate, while a lot sedates a person. A smoker learns to control the delivery of nicotine through the smoking technique to create the desired mood state."

Mr. Parrish, the Philip Morris spokesman, responds, "We have acknowledged in public documents that nicotine, like many, many other things, has pharmacological effects, but that doesn't mean that cigarette smoking is addictive." He adds, "This document nowhere says that nicotine produces addiction -- the document doesn't even discuss addiction."

The cover page of the Philip Morris document, which identifies it as a "1st draft," is signed by B. Reuter. At the time, Barbara Reuter says, she was part of the operations group, which deals with manufacturing the company's products. Ms. Reuter is currently employed at Philip Morris as category director of premiumbrands marketing planning. She declines to comment on the contents of the document. An individual familiar with the project says that Ms. Reuter wasn't asked to prepare anything on how nicotine works and that she never presented her conclusions about nicotine to senior management.

Cigarette-company executives have described the role of nicotine much differently than does the Philip Morris document. Last April, for instance, William Campbell, then head of Philip Morris's tobacco unit, testified at a congressional hearing that "nicotine contributes to the taste of cigarettes and the pleasures of smoking. The presence of nicotine, however, does not make cigarettes a drug or smoking an addiction."

Mr. Parrish, the Philip Morris spokesman, says that Mr. Campbell "spoke truthfully" and that "this document doesn't support any claims to the contrary."

In the same April 1994 hearing, Thomas E. Sandefur, former chairman and chief executive of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., described equating cigarettes with hard drugs as "nothing more than rhetoric." And James W. Johnston, chairman and chief executive officer of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Worldwide, said that nicotine "enhances the taste of the smoke and the way it feels on the smoker's palate, and it contributes to the overall smoking enjoyment." In written testimony, Mr. Johnston added that under the FDA's definition of addiction, "cigarette smoking is no more addictive than coffee, tea or Twinkies." He also said, "Cigarettes are clearly not in the same class as addictive, mind-altering [drugs] like heroin and cocaine."

Mr. Sandefur didn't respond to a request for comment made through Brown & Williamson. Mr. Johnston was unavailable for comment, but an R.J. Reynolds spokeswoman said the Twinkie reference was intended to show that "the term `addiction' has been so broadened as to be virtually useless scientifically."

A federal grand jury is currently looking into whether any cigarette-company executives or scientists may have perjured themselves in congressional testimony or other sworn statements concerning nicotine addiction and the alleged manipulation of nicotine in their products. Prosecutors are understood to be reviewing executives' statements in light of internal industry documents that have surfaced in recent months.

The Philip Morris draft report discusses the role of nicotine in the context of the company's consideration of a new cigarette that would continue to deliver nicotine while apparently reducing substances such as tar that have been linked to disease.

Ever since 1964, when the surgeon general stated unequivocally that cigarettes cause lung cancer and other diseases, tobacco companies have pursued the quest for a cigarette with reduced risks. In its Table project, Philip Morris followed in the footsteps of R.J. Reynolds, which introduced the "smokeless" cigarette Premier in 1988.

Premier significantly reduced smoke and virtually eliminated tar, which includes the chemicals that many scientists believe increase the risk of cancer. An R.J. Reynolds spokeswoman says the company never claimed Premier was "safer"; rather the product was billed as "cleaner." R.J. Reynolds, a unit of RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp., withdrew Premier just five months after its test-market launch because smokers found it hard to light and didn't like its taste or smell.

Even so, the Philip Morris document praises Premier for a "number of key attributes," including "zero biological activity." Government scientists say the term "biological activity" is used by the tobacco industry as a euphemism for the health risks associated with cigarettes. But Philip Morris's Mr. Parrish disputes the contention that "biological activity" refers to health effects in humans.

The document describes Philip Morris's own proposed entry as a "nicotine delivery device." And it lumps cigarettes with products that have no other function than to dispense nicotine: "Nicotine delivery devices range from snuff, chewing tobacco, cigars, pipes and conventional cigarettes to unique smoking articles, chewing gum, patches, aerosol sprays and inhalers." This statement is potentially useful to the FDA in its effort to prove that tobacco companies are in the drug business, health officials say.

Like Premier, Philip Morris's new cigarette would involve "heating rather than burning the tobacco," the draft report says. The result is "a cleaner, safer smoking experience." The document predicts that the product "has the potential to replace the conventional cigarette."

It is not clear whether the cigarette described as safer in Project Table will ever be marketed. Asked about the current status of the effort, Mr. Parrish said the company's policy is not to comment on product development. But another person familiar with the initiative describes its status as "neither dead nor ready for introduction." This individual explains that one obstacle to marketing something that isn't "as good or as sexy" as a conventional cigarette is that "you turn a person who smokes for pleasure into someone who looks like an addict pumping something into their arm."

Still, it now appears that all three of the top cigarette companies have contemplated a move toward a new kind of cigarette. In addition to Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, a unit of B.A.T Industries PLC, has taken out patents related to such a project, the draft report says. This "illustrates extensive interest in the development of a superior nicotine delivery device," the draft report states. A spokesman for B&W says, however, that the company is in the business of selling cigarettes "which aren't nicotine-delivery devices."

With the exception of R.J. Reynolds, no U.S. tobacco company has taken a product such as Premier to the public.

See the full text of the Philip Morris document.