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Study Claims Tobacco Industry Manipulated Nicotine Levels

The U.S. tobacco industry is under fire again from health experts who claim manufacturers boosted levels of nicotine in cigarettes over a seven-year period. Details of a new study by the Harvard University School of Public Health.

Here are the grim statistics: Tobacco is the second major cause of death in the world. The World Health Organization says tobacco is responsible for the deaths of one out of every ten adults. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control also says cigarette smoking is the leading 'preventable' cause of death in the United States. But many other Americans have taken the anti-smoking message to heart. Recent figures show that cigarette sales in the U.S. have dropped to their lowest levels in half a century.

Almost a decade ago a group of American tobacco manufacturers signed an agreement with a number of U.S. states to help pay for the cost of smoking-related illnesses. As a result of that agreement, the state of Massachusetts required the industry to furnish yearly reports of the nicotine content of its cigarettes.

Now health experts say the yearly reports…from 1997 to 2005 confirm a slow but steady increase in the nicotine potency of each cigarette. One of the study's authors, Greg Connolly, says the increase in nicotine and modified design intentionally boosts the number of puffs per cigarette. "In fact, the tobacco industry does control nicotine to cause and maintain addiction among smokers."

An 11 percent increase in nicotine levels from 1998 to 2005 was found in all major brands manufactured by R. J. Reynolds, Brown and Williamson, Lorillard and Philip Morris. The cigarette manufacturers dispute the findings.

Philip Morris blames the nicotine increases on the 'natural variability of tobacco crops' as well as errors in the testing methods.

Study author Connolly and Matt Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids are both skeptical: Connolly says, "The chance of that occurring was one in a thousand." And Myers adds, "A cigarette is a highly sophisticated manufactured product with every component carefully measured, carefully calculated and the tobacco industry monitors every single batch of cigarettes that come off the assembly line."

It turns out that hiking nicotine levels in cigarettes is not illegal under U.S. law. Cigarette production is not under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Matt Myers says that's contrary to everything else the F.D.A. regulates. "If the manufacturer of dog food changes what's in that product, it has to tell the Food and Drug Administration. It is appalling that the product that kills more Americans than any other product is also the least regulated product in this nation."

Since the 1998 tobacco agreement, the U.S. cigarette makers have spent millions of dollars to pay for public service announcements that warn of the health risks associated with smoking. Philip Morris says it would support greater supervision of the industry.

Yet one smoker has a strong distaste for the motives of those who feed his addiction and says, "I think they are leeches on society…and I still smoke."