Tobacco death toll 'needlessly high'
A US company says it has found a way virtually to remove major cancer-causing substances from tobacco.
Smoking kills about four million people a yearThe carcinogens are tobacco-specific nitrosamines, known to be tumour initiators.
The company, Star Scientific, of Virginia, says it can reduce the nitrosamines to very low or undetectable levels during the tobacco curing process, using special barns.
But it has found little interest from cigarette manufacturers in adopting its technology.
Star Scientific's co-founder, Jonnie Williams, told BBC Radio Four's environment programme, Costing the Earth, how he made the discovery.
"I was forced into it. I was trying to make a chewing gum with tobacco in it as flavouring.
"The toxicologist called me up one day and said: 'There's a real problem I've got to break to you.'
"'There's something we didn't know about called nitrosamines, and they're carcinogenic as hell. This is never going to work.'
"And I said: 'Well, that's simple. Don't get excited. We'll just find a way to take them out.'"
Less lethal tobacco is now possible
Asked if the tobacco companies themselves could have solved the nitrosamine problem, Mr Williams replied: "They're in the business of selling cigarettes.
"I'm in the business of selling reduced-risk products to compete with them."
He said he had been looking for the solution, and perhaps the companies "hadn't looked hard enough - or at all."
Smoking is estimated to kill 120,000 people annually in the United Kingdom, and four million globally.
The campaign group ASH - Action on Smoking and Health - says the latest data suggest that each cigarette shortens the smoker's life by 11 minutes.
It says continued smoking is estimated to mean a one in two chance of dying prematurely. But it believes those odds could improve to one in three or even four.
Clive Bates of ASH said: "We think the companies could bring down the harm caused by a cigarette if they wanted to."
Cigarettes: A drug delivery system?
Dr Adrian Paine, of British American Tobacco, told Costing the Earth: "The industry is working hard to innovate and produce products with lower risk.
"But it's by no means easy. We're dealing with a very complex issue here. We don't want to raise hopes unduly.
"If you are a smoker and you are concerned about the risks of smoking, which are real and serious, then the way of dealing with that is to quit."
But the programme was told by a clinical psychologist, Dr Martin Jarvis, that cigarettes are simply a means to an end, a delivery system for nicotine, which is an addictive drug.
Dr Jarvis, who works for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, said the industry had done as little as needed to be done to satisfy the regulators.
The Labour MP David Hinchliffe chairs the House of Commons health committee.
He told Costing the Earth: "The tobacco companies could have been in a position, had they shared their information, to perhaps move the health debate forward in a quite radical way.
"But of course it wasn't in their interest to do so. It was in their interest to do absolutely nothing about this.
"The tobacco industry has been fairly well represented in the decision-making process in Parliament.
"I think there is clear evidence that it has been able to obstruct efforts that have been made to address known health problems."