Anesthesiologist Says He Will Make Cigarettes Safer
The tobacco industry is facing a nearly $145 billion penalty after a jury in Florida decided earlier this month that cigarette makers had known for decades that their product causes deadly cancers.
Kerry Lane, a doctor in Del Ray Beach, Fla., says industry scientists have also known for much of that time that it was possible to prepare cigarettes that would not cause so many deaths. But they didn't pursue the evidence, he said, so he did. And he has now won a patent for a process that he contends will make cigarettes safer.
"The unfortunate part is that people are going to smoke," said Dr. Lane, an anesthesiologist. And when they do, he said, they expose themselves to a common fungus that can grow on tobacco leaves when they are stored in barns to cure and age. The mold's spores produce something called an aflatoxin, which Dr. Lane described as "the most potent toxin in the world."
He is hoping that the tobacco industry might be interested in his process as a way of creating a product that might be marketed as potentially less harmful than conventional cigarettes.
Dr. Lane said decades of research had shown that aflatoxins can suppress the immune system, cause mutations in a tumor suppression gene, and prompt tumors in laboratory animals that are similar to tumors found in cigarette smokers. It can also cause birth defects, he added, and inhibit protein synthesis. If that wasn't enough, aflatoxins have also been used in chemical weapons.
Dr. Lane first heard of aflatoxins as a medical student in 1977, when he worked in a toxicology lab at a pharmaceutical company. For his experiments, he simply bought aflatoxins from a medical supply company. The federal government has since banned those sales out of concern that the fungus could be used to make weapons.
The government also controls aflatoxins in another manner: the Food and Drug Administration restricts the levels of the fungus permitted in food crops. "The F.D.A. regulates aflatoxin levels in corn, grain, wheat and peanuts because it is a deadly carcinogen," Dr. Lane said. "No one has proven that aflatoxins are bad in tobacco, but we know they cause all these other things. But limits are not required on tobacco."
Dr. Lane's interest in aflatoxins was revived when several states filed lawsuits against the tobacco industry a few years ago. He began studying scientific papers and other reports made public during the suits, and during hearings in Congress.
"I found all these documents showing that the tobacco companies knew about aflatoxins in the 1960's," he said. Because they burn only at temperatures higher than 550 degrees, the mold spores can survive when a cigarette is smoked. That means they are present in second-hand cigarette smoke as well. "There was even one study that showed a complete transfer in cigarette smoke. The level found on the leaves was 200 parts per billion, and the same was found in the smoke."
He also learned that federal regulations limit aflatoxin levels on corn to 20 parts per billion and in milk to 0.05 parts per billion. He saw a government report stating that a batch of marijuana leaves had aflatoxin levels of 8,000 parts per billion, he said. But he couldn't find published statistics for aflatoxin levels in commercial tobacco.
"I started looking at tobacco patents," Dr. Lane said. "There are literally thousands and thousands, and the industry does everything imaginable to tobacco. They extract certain elements, among them nicotine, and then spray things back in that they think they'll need."
He found patents that covered ways to neutralize the fungus in food crops, he said, "but nothing to do with removing aflatoxins from tobacco."
So he decided to invent a method himself. His patent covers methods of preventing the growth of aflatoxins in the first place, testing for its presence, and treating tobacco to remove the mold spores when they are present.
"The mold attacks dying or dead organisms," he said. So he designed a system to prevent mold growth in tobacco storage facilities. "A prepackaged cartridge is provided to inject nontoxic benevolent fungal spores into the chamber," Dr. Lane wrote in his patent. "The purpose of the benevolent fungal spores is to crowd out harmful toxigenic microbes with a harmless species."
Dr. Lane also suggests filling the storage area with an inert gas to prevent the mold from growing. The patent also describes ways to monitor the chemicals used to make what are known as "reformulated" cigarettes, like those with low-nicotine tobacco. The chemicals are tested for the presence of aflatoxins, he said.
And the invention includes a process for removing those aflatoxins when they show up. The tobacco is immersed in a solvent like acid or emulsifier, ethers, alcohol, ammonia, bleaches, or hydrogen peroxide. The solution is agitated, and the solvent leeches the aflatoxins from the leaves. The liquid is monitored, and the leaves are tested for remaining aflatoxin levels.
"It's like putting brand new jeans in the wash that are real blue, and after every wash they become less blue," Dr. Lane said.
The process is repeated if necessary until aflatoxin levels in the tobacco fall. How low they should go is "the billion-dollar question, because no one knows what an adequate level should be," Dr. Lane said. He hopes the F.D.A. will decide on a level and then set the requirements.
In the meantime, Dr. Lane said he had offered to license his invention to 160 tobacco processing and manufacturing companies. He is still waiting for their replies.