Heated Dispute Over 'Safer' Cigarette

The promise of a “safer” cigarette may have been dampened today with findings that the smoke-free “Eclipse” contains higher levels of cancerous toxins than other low-tar brands already on the market.

Several anti-tobacco groups, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Heart Association and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, released the results of the study today at a press conference in Washington, D.C. An independent laboratory, Labstat International of Ontario, Canada, performed the analysis with funding from the state health agency.

In response to the results, the Massachusetts health department contacted the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission and the Massachusetts Attorney General asking them to investigate the safety claims being made by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. of Winston-Salem, N.C. on its Web site and in ads.

One claim, for example, the firm makes is that Eclipse may present less risk of cancer compared to other cigarettes.

The groups hope this report will spark an immediate governmental review of the product and its removal from the marketplace. “We want to see independent regulatory bodies review the scientific research in a comprehensive way,” says Dr. Greg Connolly, director of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Project, who initiated the research.

A Safer Ciggie? R.J. Reynolds developed the Eclipse cigarette to help reduce the health hazards of smoking. Rather than burning the tobacco directly, the Eclipse heats the tobacco using a carbon rod insulated by glass fibers. The smoker inhales the heated air drawn across the tobacco.

Because only 3 percent of the tobacco is actually burned, the manufacturer says the cigarette produces fewer cancer-causing chemicals. It also produces very little second-hand smoke, potentially reducing the growing conflict between smokers and non-smokers.

The Eclipse was developed under the name Premier in 1988. It was test-marketed in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1996. Currently, it is being tested in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, and is also available for purchase via phone or internet.

R.J. Reynolds began specifically touting the cigarette as safer for smokers this past spring, after its researchers reported that the Eclipse produced around 80 percent less carcinogens and tar in its smoke than a traditional ultra-light brand of cigarette, the “Merit Ultralight.”

The company began contending the cigarette was less likely to cause a risk of cancer, bronchitis or possibly emphysema, with ads saying: “A cigarette that responds to concerns about certain smoking-related illnesses. Including cancer.”

Claims Challenged Questioning those claims, the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Project commissioned a Canadian laboratory to investigate the cigarette, comparing the Eclipse to two other low-tar brands, RJR Reynold’s own “Now King Size Hard Pack,” and Brown & Williamson’s “Carlton King Size Soft Pack.”

The results, released today, say Eclipse had equivalent amounts of nicotine and higher amounts of known cancer-causing chemicals than the other products: The Eclipse contained 734 percent more acetaldehyde and 475 percent more acrolein, two carcinogens, than the Now cigarette.

The lab also detected higher toxin levels than when the product was originally released in 1996.

“The [company’s] claim appears to be false and misleading,” concluded Howard Koh, the Massachusetts state health department commissioner, in his letter to the agencies calling on them to launch an investigation. “Further, the use of the data to make health claims about reduced risk to cancer also appears to be false and misleading.”

The report also found Eclipse produced significantly higher levels of carbon monoxide, a risk factor for heart attack, than RJR Tobacco had found in its own research. RJR has not made claims regarding cardiovascular issues because its findings had been “inconclusive.”

The American Cancer Society also is calling for the removal of the product from the marketplace. “RJR’s health claims on the Eclipse cigarette are ludicrous,” John Kelly, the society’s chairman, said in a statement. “The health claims cannot be trusted to tobacco industry scientists alone.”

Previous independent studies have also questioned other aspects of the Eclipse’s safety. In 1998, researchers reported in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention that tiny particles of fiberglass were present in the cigarette, a possible cancer risk if inhaled.

Keeping the Flame Alive But RJR Reynolds defends its product. “Under every testing regimen we have used, the smoke from Eclipse is chemically much simpler than that of other cigarettes, including ultra-low tar cigarettes,” Gary T. Burger, executive vice president of research and development, said in a statement responding to the Canadian findings.

Burger said his company has done animal and human tests showing a dramatic difference in toxicity, and will report those results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal within the month.

Other tobacco manufacturers are also testing cigarettes with allegedly fewer health risks. Phillip Morris is preparing “Accord,” also a reduced-smoke cigarette, while Star Enterprise, a small company in Richmond, Va., is test marketing “Advance,” a cigarette with tobacco specially bred to contain fewer nitrosamines, one of several cancer-causing agents.

Smoking kills an estimated 400,000 Americans annually.

Daniel Finger contributed to this report.