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Cigarette Maker Tried Biogenetics

Nov 20, 2002 | AP

Two college researchers on Wednesday presented evidence that the tobacco industry, particularly Philip Morris, experimented with genetically engineered tobacco as early as the 1980s in an effort to control nicotine levels in cigarettes.

"There was an intersection of two research trends: biotechnology and the need for a low-nicotine cigarette," University of California, San Francisco, researcher Joshua Denby told a gathering at the 2002 National Conference on Tobacco or Health.

About 3,400 people are attending this year's conference, which focuses on efforts to reduce smoking.

Denby, with colleague Lisa Bero, pored over thousands of industry internal documents made public as part of the tobacco settlement of lawsuits with the states.

They found evidence that Philip Morris paid $1.5 million to Davis biotechnology company Calgene Inc., now a subsidiary of Monsanto Co., in 1986 to help it create a low-nicotine cigarette.

That effort failed, Denby said.

Nonetheless, New York-based Philip Morris continued to pursue the development of a low-nicotine cigarette, aware that it was likely to be perceived as healthier, although it is not, Denby said. The company currently markets several products developed by more traditional, non-biotechnological methods.

A representative from Philip Morris could not be reached immediately for comment.

This month, Philip Morris began inserting disclaimers in its "light," "ultra light," "mild," and "medium" cigarettes telling consumers those cigarettes aren't less harmful that full-flavored smokes.

So far, only one company, Vector Tobacco Inc., has sold cigarettes genetically engineered to be low-nicotine. However, the company's Omni-brand cigarettes haven't caught on, ringing up a paltry $5.6 million in sales this year, according to its latest earnings report.

Vector is now pinning its hope on a new engineered cigarette, Quest, which will be launched in January.

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