When Sir Walter Raleigh brought back the first fragrant tobacco leaves to Britain from America, in 1578, he cannot have known he was kick-starting a habit that would end up killing more than five million people a year worldwide – more than die in wars, car crashes and from Aids combined.
Now, nearly half a millennium later, governments all over the world are waging war on cigarettes.
Fan: Actress Katherine Heigl demonstrated an
electronic cigarette on the Letterman show after saying they were helping
her to kick the habit. The new cigarettes are more like inhalers
Packets carry health warnings including, in some countries, pictures of cancer-ravaged lungs.
It has been illegal to smoke indoors in a public place in Britain since 2007, and many other EU countries have followed suit.
The reason for all this, of course, is not only to discourage people from smoking at all, but also a concern that the health of non-smokers will be damaged if they inhale cigarette smoke, which contains a mixture of toxic chemicals.
All this has led many tobacco firms – fearful of losing revenue – to ponder an alternative, described as the -‘safe cigarette’.
This new cigarette, which will satisfy nicotine cravings without the danger of lung cancer, emphysema or heart disease, has achieved almost mythical status in the industry.
Although big tobacco firms have been working on ‘healthy smoking’ for 50 years, the technical and economic hurdles have been too high.
Relaxing: Lindsay Lohan looked has been spotted puffing away on electronic cigarettes – will she switch to the inhalers?
But now, recent scientific breakthroughs mean that it could very soon be a reality.
And, controversially, one of the world’s biggest tobacco companies, BAT, is in talks with British medical regulators to licence the world’s first genuine ‘safe cigarette’.
This so-called ‘nicotine delivery’ product will look, feel, taste and give exactly the same ‘kick’ as a normal cigarette, yet with almost none of the health risks associated with tobacco – for the smoker or those around them.
The first credible cigarette substitutes, so-called ‘electronic cigarettes’, went on sale four years ago.
Similar: E-cigarettes look like slightly larger
versions of regular cigarettes
Futuristic: The cigarette inhaler is being touted as a viable alternative
The brainchild of Chinese inventor Hon Lik, these were battery-powered plastic cylinders made to look like the real thing, which contain a small vaporiser which delivers a puff of nicotine (but no tar) to the lungs when sucked. The tip even lights up to simulate a real cigarette.
The problem is that many smokers find ‘e-cigarettes’ unsatisfactory because they don’t deliver sufficient nicotine to satisfy their cravings.
What’s more, e-cigarettes have not been approved by the UK Medicines And Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the Government body responsible for ensuring that medicines and medical devices work.
As a result, although e-cigarettes can be sold legally in the UK, they cannot be marketed as an aid to quitting.
Toxin-free: Lady Victoria Hervey with her SmokeStik Royale
Enter British American Tobacco, which makes the Dunhill, Kent and Lucky Strike. It has bought the rights to a new form of cigarette-substitute developed by a small British medical firm, Kind Consumer.
This ‘non-electronic nicotine inhaler’ (there will no doubt be a snappier name when the product comes on to the market) provides, according to its British inventor Alex Hearn, ‘all the psychological cues and sensations of smoking’.
Like the Chinese e-cigarette, this inhaler will look and feel just like a real cigarette. It, too, will deliver a dose of nicotine (provided by a breath-activated aerosol device).
But there are two crucial differences which BAT believes will set it apart and make it the first truly safe cigarette.
Principally, the nicotine dose will be higher. And second, BAT is in talks with the MHRA to have their devices licensed as an officially approved tobacco substitute.
Alex Hearne says BAT plans to submit its product to the MHRA to secure its status as an officially regulated product next year. He says: ‘We are very much in line with the Department of Health Strategy.’
The firm is very confident. ‘There is political support for this,’ says BAT spokesman David O’Reilly. ‘In our view, e-cigarettes do not work. People should be able to use nicotine, but in the safest possible way.’
Within two years, safe cigarettes could be sold widely — and because they do not burn tobacco, their use will be legal everywhere.
Keen smoker: Charlie Sheen is the face of electronic cigarette NicoSheen
endorser: Avid smoker Sheen became a partner of the E-Cigarette
company after agreeing to front their novel product
The fact that ‘Big Tobacco’ is launching a ‘healthy’ cigarette (and has caught the attention of Tesco’s highly successful former chief executive Terry Leahy, who is investing in the venture) will dismay many people in the health lobby.
‘This is a cynical move to design a product to keep you smoking,’ is the view taken by Martin Dockrell, director of research and policy at Action On Smoking And Health (ASH), Britain’s main anti-smoking group, which points out that tobacco companies have no plans to stop flooding emerging markets of the Third World with cheap, conventional cigarettes. Of course non-tobacco nicotine products are not new.
Fatal addiction: But are ‘cigarette inhalers’ really an alternative?
Smokers have been able to buy patches, gum and inhalation devices that give them a nicotine ‘high’.
Anti-smoking activists traditionally scorn such products, though, arguing that there is no safe way to consume nicotine, and that the only safe solution is to quit.
Regulatory authorities are also suspicious: the tobacco-replacement products have been subjected to numerous regulations and safety-testing procedures, whereas actual tobacco — a proven killer — can be sold by anyone.
These attitudes may be changing. Martin Dockrell says: ‘Quitting smoking is the best thing you can do, but there are other ways to reduce harm to yourself and others. Almost all the damage done from smoking comes from tar and gases relating to the tobacco, not nicotine.’
ASH takes a pragmatic view, accepting that anything which can help someone to stay off cigarettes is better than nothing.
But the lobby group remains wary of anything marketed as ‘safe’, not least because tobacco companies have been accused in the past of trying to kill off all previous ‘safe smoking’ products in order to protect their revenues from regular cigarette sales.
RESISTANCE FROM TOBACCO COMPANIES:
Since the link between cigarette
smoking and cancer was proved by British scientist Richard Doll in the
1950s, every attempt to impress on the public the message that
‘cigarettes kill’ has been fiercely resisted by the tobacco companies.
This is unsurprising given that BAT
has an annual turnover of nearly £44 billion, of which some £3.1 billion
is after-tax profits. Not bad for a company whose sole product line
will kill a significant proportion of its customers.
Critics claim their intention is not
so much weaning people off tobacco as keep people smoking by providing
them with an alternative when the health lobby makes it impossible for
them to light up.
ASH admits there is an ‘anomaly’ in it opposing — and legislating
against — the introduction of products which may be significantly less
harmful than cigarettes.
great irony is that if tobacco had not been discovered until now, no
modern Western government would probably legalise a substance that is so
addictive and potentially deadly. But centuries of acceptance and
custom mean that the war on smoking is going to be a long one.
people to quit has worked, but only up to a point: around a quarter of
adults in Britain still smoke. So maybe a new, risk-free cigarette is
needed — even if it comes from the firms that actually manufacture the