Indeed, in the 1950s, Philip Morris researchers already saw the potential of a "healthy" cigarette and had even begun to suggest that the company could capitalize on health concerns by admitting that cigarettes were harmful. "Evidence is building up that heavy smoking contributes to lung cancer, " wrote a Philip Morris scientist in July 1958. He then suggested that the company have the "intestinal fortitude to jump to the other side of the fence, " and that the company would have a "wealth of ammunition" to attack competitors who did not have safer cigarettes.
But several factors have stood in the way of the development of a safer smoke. Taking the toxins out of cigarette smoke has turned out to be a technological challenge. The biggest problem has been maintaining the taste and smoking sensations that smokers crave—so far, no company has overcome those obstacles. And industry lawyers have balked at the suggestions that cigarette makers embark on research to make safe cigarettes out of fears of the tricky legal problem such research would create for the entire industry. Patrick Sheehy, the former chief executive of British American Tobacco, wrote in 1986 that safe cigarette research would be tacit admission that cigarettes are dangerous. "In attempting to develop a 'safe' cigarette you are, by implication, in danger of being interpreted as accepting the current product is unsafe, and this is not a position that I think we should take, " he wrote.
Among manufacturers, finding a way to remove toxins from cigarette smoke has long been, well, a burning desire. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation
Finally, the safe cigarette has been stymied by the very groups who are most concerned about the health effects of smoking: antitobacco groups and public health officials. The cigarette industry's efforts to market safer cigarettes have been met with fierce opposition by antitobacco activists, who want to see such products labeled as nicotine delivery devices and subjected to government regulations. Although the opposition of health groups to a safe cigarette would seem contradictory, it is borne out of a deep mistrust of the cigarette companies, whose strategy of denial over the years has created a credibility gap with the public health community.