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Despite ABC's Apology, FDA To Keep Up Anti-Tobacco War

By John Schwartz
The Washington Post

"Apology accepted," the full-page ad read. Paid for by tobacco giant Philip Morris Cos., it crowed about the much-publicized apology by ABC for allegations made in a 1994 broadcast about whether the tobacco giant "spikes" its tobacco filler by adding nicotine from outside sources.

The network made a carefully worded apology last week for the spiking charges, but stood by what it insisted was the "main thrust" of the program - that the tobacco companies "control the levels of nicotine in cigarettes in order to keep people smoking."

The Philip Morris ad, however, suggested that the ABC apology had broader implications. The ad stated, "As for the group of people who eagerly embraced the "spiking' allegation to serve their ongoing crusade against the tobacco industry - we stand ready to accept their apologies as well."

Was the ad referring to the Food and Drug Administration, which has embarked on an effort to regulate tobacco products to reduce underage smoking? Philip Morris official Charles R. Wall said in a recent interview that the FDA initiative "was based on, in large measure, the charges on the "Day One' broadcast," and added, "I think it will have an effect - it should have an effect" - on the regulatory plan and on the new wave of lawsuits against the industry.

Asked what other apologies might be forthcoming, and whether he expected apologies from the FDA, Wall said, "Believe me I'm not hanging by my phone."

On that, at least, Wall and the FDA agree. In a statement released last week, the agency said the ABC apology would not affect its efforts to regulate the tobacco industry. "Internal industry documents demonstrate the industry's long-standing knowledge of and extensive research on the significant effects of nicotine," the FDA said. "FDA's investigation revealed that tobacco manufacturers actively control the amount and rate at which nicotine from marketed cigarettes and smokeless tobacco is delivered to consumers."

The agency's exhaustive review of tobacco industry publications and internal papers began long before the ABC broadcast and went further, producing more than 100,000 pages of documentation to back up FDA claims.

"It's never been about spiking," said FDA official Mitch Zeller. "Spiking or not, it's the deliberate control of nicotine levels" that interests the agency.

The FDA contends that tobacco companies - by adjusting the blend of tobaccos and fillers used, the chemical additives introduced in the manufacturing process, the papers used to wrap the cigarette, filter characteristics and other factors - determine the attributes of each cigarette, providing the consistency that is the essence of any successful consumer product. So, too, is the dose of nicotine carefully controlled, whether solely for flavor - as the industry contends - or for its drug effects. That ability to control nicotine delivery is evident on every pack of cigarettes, where for more than 20 years the Federal Trade Commission has required cigarette makers to post the nicotine yield of their products.

"Cigarettes are not simply cut tobacco rolled into a paper tube," the FDA declared in its Federal Register filings on tobacco regulation. "Modern cigarettes, as sold in the United States, are painstakingly designed and manufactured to control the amount of nicotine delivered to the smoker."

It's hard to find the word "spike" in the hundreds of pages of FDA filings on tobacco regulation in the Federal Register. The only citation found by a Washington Post reporter was from an article by a tobacco industry scientist, D.W. DeJong, who wrote in a 1985 article in Tabak Journal International that higher-nicotine American tobaccos can be blended with low-yield cigarette blends to "spike" the mix.

Much of the agency's evidence of nicotine manipulation came from Philip Morris itself. When FDA officials toured a Philip Morris plant last year as part of their investigation of the industry, they found that the company was so intent on refuting the ABC spiking argument that company officials carefully laid out their methods of controlling nicotine levels in cigarettes - which the agency had already decided was the focus of its inquiry.