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Cigarette Filters May Have Added to Health Risk

Mar 12, 2002 | Health Scout News

As far back as 1957 -- seven years after filter cigarettes were introduced -- the Philip Morris company was warned that the filters could release harmful substances when smokers inhaled. Apparently, the tobacco giant did nothing to change its product or warn the public.

A new report cites an in-house memo during that time period saying that inhaled filter particles could cause silicosis, a respiratory disease of the lungs.

"From 1961 to 1999, Philip Morris conducted fall-out studies on the fibers from cigarette filters," says the report's lead author, John Pauly, a cancer research scientist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. "These were not for a cosmetic problem [the way the cigarette looked] or a blemish [the way the filter performed], so one is allowed to think that the reason for the studies was that they were addressing harm, and Philip Morris has withheld this information from the consumer."

The Roswell Park research is one of 11 articles published in a special issue of the quarterly scientific journal Tobacco Control that focus on various aspects of the tobacco industry's efforts to defuse the public's increasing concern about the health effects of smoking. The articles are based upon approximately 33 million pages of internal industry documents that have been posted on the Internet since 1998 as part of the $246 billion master settlement agreement between the big tobacco companies and the states.

"Philip Morris has known about defective filters for 40 years," adds article co-author Michael Cummings, chairman of the institute's department of cancer prevention. "They have, in fact, measured the defect, but they haven't changed the filter, and consumers aren't even aware of the filter fall-out issue."

Responding to the report, a spokesman for Philip Morris, which manufactures Marlboro, Merit and Basics, said there was no data suggesting filters are harmful.

But in their article, the Roswell authors cite an in-house memo written in May 1957 by Anne C. Stubing, a Philip Morris employee, to the company's president, O.P. Comas. The memo reports on a meeting between tobacco industry executives and manufacturers of the filter material in which concerns about "the dangers of using [cellulose acetate]" were raised, the article says. Once the product is cut, the memo says, there are always loose pieces of filament, which are "then sucked down into the lungs of the smoker and are considered to be capable of producing silicosis."

Ninety percent of the cigarettes sold today have filters, and a new Justice Department proposal that would require cigarette packaging to list all ingredients, additives and toxic chemicals could mean that the ingredients of filters may yet become more widely known.

For their research, the Roswell Park scientists focused on 61 internal papers from Phillip Morris, which dated from 1957 to 1994 and were related to filter fiber "fall-out." The term was coined by the tobacco company, they say, to describe the cellulose acetate fibers that are part of all cigarette filters and the carbon granules found specifically in charcoal filters.

Pauly, Cummings and their colleagues concluded that the documents showed the company knew such "fall-out" was probably being inhaled when people smoked and that the particles might be harmful.

Other tobacco companies, including the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company, were also aware of the health risks of filters, the authors add, but they focused on Philip Morris because they had the company's documents.

At the same time that Phillip Morris was marketing filters by proclaiming they made cigarettes safer for consumers, Cummings says, the company was regularly testing its cigarettes and finding that carbon granules and cellulose acetate fibers, which are also used to make film, were being dislodged from filters and were probably being inhaled by smokers.

"The motivation [to make cigarettes safer] may have been a positive one, but adding plastic particles to cigarettes created new risks. They were aware of the potential risks but didn't do anything to reduce filter fiber fall-out," Cummings says.

"We take very seriously any studies reporting that an aspect of our products may increase health risk, but based on our assessment of the available data, we find that filter use does not pose any additional health risk to smokers," says Brendan McCormick, manager of media relations for Philip Morris USA in New York City.

"It is known that particles can be dislodged," McCormick adds. "But the rate of inhalation is very low, and evidence does not suggest that fibers from the cigarette filters actually penetrate the lung."

Not so, replies Pauly, who cites a 1995 study he did that found fiber particles in the lung tissue of lung cancer patients who smoked. The study, which was published in the American Association for Cancer Research's journal Cancer Research, recommended that these fibers be tested for toxicity.

Cummings finds it disturbing that the public doesn't know about filter fiber fall-out.

"We're [at Roswell] in the cancer business, and we didn't discover it until the mid-1990's," he says, even though he adds Philip Morris had been regularly testing the fall-out since 1961.

Also reported is a 1997 interview Pauly had with Philip Morris scientist William Farone, who was the director of applied research for the company from 1977 to 1984. During that time, he acknowledged to Pauly, filter tests were performed because the company was concerned about the possible health risks of inhaling carbon granules and filter fibers.

The report also reviews several of the numerous tests for filter fall-out using a smoke machine, a mechanism that simulates human smoking patterns. The results of the tests, which were performed from 1961 through 1991, with the majority done during the 1980's, showed a range in the number of particles dislodged from cigarettes, from as few as 20 to as many as 231, the report says. The brands tested included L&M, Marlboro, Parliament, Salem, Winston and Merit.

Cummings says that those fall-out results are low, especially today with milder cigarettes that have less flavor.

"By making the product milder, people inhale more deeply, which only increases the exposure to filters," he says.

Both authors note that over the last 30 years, there have been many patents awarded for products designed to make cigarette filters safer, but that the cigarette companies continue to manufacture the same filter that has been in use for 40 years.

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