The Science of Sustainability

Tobacco Industry Refused To Reduce Radioactivity In Cigarettes In Order To Maintain Addictive Potential

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While most of us probably never considered the tobacco industry to be particularly good people, the latest report based on 13 million documents released since a court-ordered legal settlement in 1998 should disturb even the most optimistic of industry supporters.

Scientists at UCLA have examined millions of previously secret internal records from the tobacco industry looking for clues as to how they handled potential health concerns regarding cigarette smoke. From these documents, two previous reports revealed that the presence of the radioactive isotope polonium 210 in tobacco and its associated increase in lung cancer risk from smoking was common knowledge among top industry executives as early as 1964. These reports showed that tobacco companies not only failed to inform consumers of the risk of smoking, but also refused to take action to reduce the radioactive potential.

The latest study, published this week in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research, uncovered that the tobacco industry had detailed knowledge of the presence of radioactive substances as early as 1959.

According to the report, the authors were “surprised to discover the industry's scientists had actually made, as early as the 1960s, quantitative and realistic radiobiological calculations of the long-term radiation absorption dose of ionizing alpha particles and reached the conclusion that the alpha particles in cigarette smoke in promoting ‘cancerous growth’ in the lungs of smokers was ‘not an unlikely event’.”

Amazingly, the tobacco industry was also aware of an acid washing process by which the radioactive potential of cigarette smoke could be dramatically reduced. Autopsies from smokers indicate that the majority of tumors occur where the alpha particles accumulate in the lungs. This acid wash technique is effective at removing the radioisotope from tobacco plants, and has the potential to significantly reduce cancer risk.

Though the industry frequently cited cost and environmental concerns for why they did not adopt the technique, the UCLA team found evidence that the industry was primarily worried that the technique would reduce the addictive potential of nicotine.

“The industry was concerned that the acid media would ionize the nicotine, making it more difficult to be absorbed into the brains of smokers and depriving them of that instant nicotine rush that fuels their addiction,” said Hrayr S. Karagueuzian, the first author of the study.

So not only was the industry aware that tobacco causes cancer, they intentionally hid this information from consumers and refused to take steps to reduce the danger because they wanted their customers to remain addicted to their product.

While this raises many frightening questions for consumers of any ingestible product (food industry, I’m looking in your direction), what bothers me most is the uncertainty over who will be held accountable for this crime.

According to the report, polonium 210 is still present in all commercially available domestic and foreign cigarette brands.

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Category: Health

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Darya Pino

About the Author ()

Darya Pino is a Ph.D trained scientist, San Francisco foodie, food and health writer and advocate of local, seasonal foods. She shares her unique scientific perspective on health and enthusiasm for delicious foods at her website Summer Tomato. Follow her on Twitter @summertomato.
  • Bruce

    Wow. This is new news. NOT!

    Since they started using mined phosphate fertilizers way back in the 40's or so this has been known.

    I found out about this back in the '70s.

    Their plan worked tho.

    I'm still hooked on the damned things.

  • http://www.thetech.org/genetics/index.php Barry

    Is the isotope found in other agricultural products that use the same fertilizers?

  • Wayne

    Although phosphate fertilizers worsen the problem, radon occurs naturally, in differing degrees. Any radon-rich soil contaminates tobacco leaves with polonium.

  • Steve

    It is also well known that all broad leaf plants, including lettuce, spinach, etc. all pull heavy metals out of the soil.

    So, yes, this would affect a lot of other agricultural products.

  • http://www.thetech.org/genetics/index.php Barry

    Thanks that is what I would have guessed. Does the fact that people smoke tobacco as opposed to eating it make the polonium contamination better or worse? Or does it matter?

  • nit picker

    "the alpha particles accumulate in the lungs"

    LOL. If that has been shown alpha particles accumulate in the lungs, call cern because it implies some very odd behavior if they 1) do not have enough kinetic energy to leave the body almost instantly (in fact, that is exactly what causes them to cleave DNA and cause cancer – they act like teeny bullets). 2) for any deflected sufficiently that they do stay in the body, they would of course pick up 2 electrons and cease to be alpha particles and instead become helium atoms.

  • Estes

    Nit picker, no need to call cern, although 1) those particles don't leave the body (alpha particles travel around 5 cm in air and do not even penetrate a piece of paper due to their high reactivity) and 2) this effect is what happens exactly and is why this radiation does damage at all.

    Only thing is: Radiation is almost harmless, it is much more likely that the toxic effect of polonium or any other of the VARIOUS chemical substances in tabacco is doing the damage (just like air pollution, which is not dangerous because it is radioactive).

  • Mark

    Whether the claims in this article are accurate or not, the professional anti smoking industry has for so many years peddled so much junk science, so often engineered "studies" with results determined in advance, overstated or distorted the results of genuine research, ignored or smeared scientists who have disagreed with them, and repeatedly dealt in hysteria, fear, and persecution–using a means to justify the ends rationale–as well as sanctimonious self righteousness, intolerance, and an elitist attitude of "we not only know how you should live better than you do, we are going to FORCE you to live as we say you should, we are going to save you from yourself, it's for your own good, y'know", that I now routinely dismiss out of hand whatever they say. Extremist, fanatical, lying zealots who have so overplayed their hand they have lost all credibility with me and many others. And by the way, why is this article showing up on the website again now, nearly two years after it first appeared? Must keep hammering away with the propaganda, even if it's a rerun, apparently.

  • Jack Hatanian

    Why don't they remove that shit today doesn't the FDA force them to acid wash the tobacco nowadays
    ?