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Tobacco Executives Defend Chemical Mixing Practices

By John Schwartz
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

One by one Thursday, seven top executives of the nation's largest tobacco firms stated under oath that their companies do not spike cigarettes with extra nicotine to hook smokers.

But the often-angry testimony did not satisfy skeptical members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on health and the environment, who grilled the executives for more than six hours -- taking breaks only to cast votes on the House floor.

It was the first time that the leaders of the tobacco industry had appeared before the group, and lawmakers took the opportunity to interrogate them concerning virtually every major smoking controversy in recent years, including allegations that manufacturers: manipulate nicotine levels; suppress research that reveals the dangers of smoking; treat tobacco products with additives that pose hidden dangers; and pitch their advertising campaigns to recruit children into the ranks of smokers.

Little new information emerged, and the hearing was marked by considerable hostility on both sides. At the outset, Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called tobacco advertising an effort "to try to hook my kids" on smoking. "I hope today," he told the executives, "that you will tell us how you all can live with such a killing record on your consciences."

Executives attempting to answer questions were often cut off by Wyden, subcommittee chairman Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., and Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., in mid-sentence with demands for simple "yes" or "no."

"I am somewhat appalled by the conduct of this hearing," Edward A. Horrigan Jr., CEO of the Liggett Group, said at one point.

One of the few tobacco-friendly lawmakers on the panel Thursday, Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., R-Va., said, "I'll be damned if (the executives) are to be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness."

The industry has been under increasing attack since a January 1993 report by the Environmental Protection Agency classified secondhand cigarette smoke as a severe hazard.

Most ominous for the industry, Food and Drug Administration commissioner David A. Kessler announced in February that his agency was considering the regulation of tobacco products as drugs because of "accumulating evidence" that companies manipulate levels of addictive nicotine.

All of the executives attacked recent accusations that their companies manipulate nicotine levels in their products. Each admitted his company blends tobaccos, but hotly denied that the longstanding practice had anything to do with nicotine manipulation.

Instead, they said, blending helps to create consistent products with the flavor consumers demand and the levels of tar that the federal government requires them to advertise. No more nicotine appears in cigarettes than is present in the original leaf, executives testified, and tar and nicotine levels in cigarettes have been dropping over time.

The FDA's position, however, does not turn on the issue of adding extra nicotine to tobacco. Since tobacco companies now have technology available to take nicotine out of tobacco, FDA officials have said, the inclusion of any significant amount of nicotine in the final product could be interpreted as manipulation.

When asked whether they believed smoking caused disease and death -- the commonly accepted figure is some 435,000 deaths each year in the United States -- the executives generally said that they did not know for sure.

"All of you have some responsibility to say something more than you don't know," Waxman said. Just as other makers of consumer products -- including cars, foods and drugs -- are required to understand and respond to the dangers associated with their goods, Waxman said, "You have an obligation to know."

As the executives spoke, committee staffers placed a placard in the television cameras' line of sight that read "One American dies every 80 seconds from tobacco use."

Executives tried to frame the argument in stark terms. "The goal of the anti-smoking industry is to bring back prohibition," said James W. Johnston, CEO of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Instead of the "back-door prohibition" of giving regulatory authority to the FDA, which he said would be tantamount to a ban, Johnston urged lawmakers who believe smoking is dangerous to "Stand up! Vote for prohibition -- and be prepared for the consequences."

Each of the executives flatly denied tobacco is addictive. "Doctor Kessler's definition of addiction would classify most coffee, cola and tea drinker as addicts -- caffeine addicts," said Johnston.