Philip Morris and GM tobacco (25/3/2008)

1.Philip Morris Tries to Engineer the Cancer Out of Tobacco

2.Cigarette Maker Has Conducted 33 GM Tobacco Tests

3.A History of Genetically Engineering Tobacco for Fun and Profit

4.The Cigarette of the Future: All the Cancer, None of the Nicotine


1.Philip Morris Tries to Engineer the Cancer Out of Tobacco
By Alexis Madrigal Wired News, March 19 2008

Scientists have genetically modified tobacco plants to knock out a gene that helps turns nicotine into one of the carcinogens in cured tobacco.

The Philip Morris-funded North Carolina State researchers say the work could lead to less cancer-causing chewing tobacco. In large-scale field trials, they compared the levels of N-nitrosonornicotine, a chemical known as NNN, between GM tobacco plants and a control group. They found a six-fold decrease in NNN and a 50 percent overall drop in a whole class of nasty substances known as tobacco-specific nitrosamines.

The new work appears in Plant Biotechnology Journal. The researchers do not state how much the use of the tobacco could reduce the health risks from chewing tobacco. Given the other 15-odd carcinogenic substances present even in chew, they do note that the best way to avoid cancer from nicotine is not to use it.

Not oblivious to consumer opposition to many genetically modified crops, the researchers then created a line of tobacco plants missing the same gene they'd previously knocked out through conventional breeding techniques. They are currently trying to introduce that mutation into commercial tobacco lines, presumably avoiding a genetically modified organism label.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture records, Philip Morris, a tobacco giant which had $66 billion in revenue last year, has run dozens of field trials for genetically modified tobacco varieties. All those studies beg the question: Can Big Tobacco genetically engineer the cancer out of the cancer stick? And if so, at what cost? (One can almost imagine an advertising slogan: New GM Chewing Tobacco -- Now Lower in Cancer!)

We'll be trying to find an answer for you over the next week with a rolling investigation. UPDATE: The first post on my research is now up. The USDA says that Philip Morris has conducted 33 field trials of genetically engineered tobacco, more than twice as many as any other tobacco company.


2.Cigarette Maker Has Conducted 33 GM Tobacco Tests Since '05
By Alexis Madrigal
Wired News, March 20 2008

Two days ago, Philip Morris backed NC-State scientists announced they'd genetically engineered tobacco plants to have reduced levels of some carcinogens. Further investigation by Wired.com revealed that the tobacco giant has applied for 34 field test permits for genetically modified tobacco since May of 2005, according to the USDA field trials database. 33 of the permits were issued.

Over the last three years, the USDA received 117 total applications to test GM tobacco strains, including 19 by North Carolina State University, which received $17.5 million from Philip Morris in December 2002 to map the tobacco genome.

Little can be determined about the types of studies that Philip Morris has run because they've labeled the details of their field permit applications, 'Confidential Business Information,' sealing them from public scrutiny.

Philip Morris is not alone among tobacco companies in genetically modifying tobacco. Vector Tobacco, which has developed a low-nicotine variety of the crop, has applied for 14 field permits since 2005, although five were rejected. RJ Reynolds has applied for six, and had one denied.

But the scale of the Philip Morris' genetic engineering program caught even staunch anti-GMO groups off-guard. Bill Freese, of Center for Food Safety, commented, 'I'm shocked.'

Many groups that fight genetically modified organisms focus on genetically modified food or 'pharming,' or the practice of synthesizing pharmaceuticals in plants. Tobacco, however, is a natural drug crop and falls between the cracks of most watchdog groups. For example, Vector has been marketing cigarettes with genetically modified tobacco under the Quest 1-2-3 brand since 2003, according to an interview the company's CEO gave to Business Week. Almost no public outcry has resulted.


3.A History of Genetically Engineering Tobacco for Fun and Profit
By Alexis Madrigal
Wired News, March 24 2008

Crop scientists have been toying with all types of crops for years, but tobacco, which naturally contains nicotine, has undergone several industry-led efforts to change the plant itself to make it more (and less) addictive and carcinogenic.

For now, efforts to reengineer tobacco to reduce nicotine levels have been scientifically successful but commercially disastrous. Vector Tobacco has been trying to introduce cigarettes created from blends of traditional and genetically modified tobacco. Back in 2001, they introduced OMNI cigarettes, which purported to contain lower amounts of carcinogens, and then QUEST low-nicotine cigarettes beginning in 2003. Vector spent $18.9 million dollars on R&D from 2005-2007.

By the company's own admissions, that money has largely gone down the drain. Last year, they discontinued most of their research efforts. The company's annual report to investors highlighted the difficulties the company has had with its products.

The company attributed its failure to a lack of ability to market the product's purported risk mitigation benefits. As it turns out, the advertising slogan, 'Now with less cancer!' is less persuasive than one might expect.

The company wrote, 'Vector Tobacco was unable to achieve the anticipated breadth of distribution and sales of the OMNI product due, in part, to the lack of success of its advertising and marketing efforts in differentiating OMNI from other conventional cigarettes with consumers through the 'reduced carcinogen' message.'

As a result of these problems, the future of the company's low-nicotine and lowish-carcinogen cigarette lines are cloudy. From the same annual report:

In November 2001, Vector Tobacco launched nationwide its reduced carcinogen OMNI cigarettes. During 2002, acceptance of OMNI in the marketplace was limited, with revenues of only approximately $5.1 million on sales of 70.7 million units... OMNI has not been a commercially successful product to date and is not currently being manufactured by Vector Tobacco... Based on an analysis of the market data obtained since the introduction of the QUEST product, we determined to postpone indefinitely the national launch of QUEST. A national launch of the QUEST brands would require the expenditure of substantial additional sums for advertising and sales promotion, with no assurance of consumer acceptance.

We point out the obvious point that smokers smoke to get the drug in tobacco, and attempts to reduce its transfer are facing an uphill battle. It's like selling weaker pot or cocaine for the same price because nicotine is a drug, after all. Even RJ Reynolds' own assistant research director, CJ Teague, admitted as much, writing in a 1972 internal memo, 'In a sense, the tobacco industry may be thought of as being a specialized, highly ritualized and stylized segment of the pharmaceutical industry... a tobacco product is, in essence, a vehicle for delivery of nicotine.'

Upping the nicotine content of a cigarette, however, seems like a great idea, from the business of tobacco perspective. And, of course, the tobacco industry did, in fact, attempt this feat.

The most pernicious effort was Kool-maker Brown and Williamson's effort to increase the nicotine levels, and thereby the addictiveness of products made from them in 1994. The tobacco strain, known as Y-1, had its nicotine content upped to over six percent from the standard 2.5-3 percent found in cured tobacco. As David Kessler, commissioner of the FDA, told Congress back then:

We now know that a tobacco company commercially developed a tobacco plant with twice the nicotine of standard flue-cured tobacco; that several million pounds of this high-nicotine tobacco are currently stored in warehouses; and that this tobacco was put into cigarettes that have been sold nationwide.

Not that any smokers would have actually known that they were smoking twice as potent a drug. Unlike other pharmaceutical companies, tobacco producers do not have to reveal what is actually in their products. As Mitch Zeller, the FDA's former tobacco control czar said, 'You can get a full list of ingredients on dog food and shampoo, but not on cigarettes.'

We have contacted Philip Morris about their genetic modification program, and have been told to expect a response sometime tomorrow.


4.The Cigarette of the Future: All the Cancer, None of the Nicotine
By Alexis Madrigal
Wired News, March 24 2008

Last week, Philip Morris' funded NC-State researchers announced that they had genetically modified tobacco plants to reduce the levels of some carcinogens in their cured leaves. That got Wired.com investigating the future of tobacco and the cigarette. Now, the FDA's former director of the Office of Tobacco Programs, Mitch Zeller, offered his vision on the best way to reengineer the cigarette.

'I'm convinced that there's very little we can do on the toxicant side,' Zeller said. 'But imagine a world, however many decades from now, in which the cigarette remains as deadly and toxic as it is today, but it's not addictive because there's no nicotine in it.'

From a public health perspective, Zeller thinks that the lack of the main addictive agent in cigarettes would do more for reducing the overall population susceptibility to the dangers of smoking than any amount of biotech tinkering could do in reducing the carcinogens in tobacco.

Zeller, who has been tracking genetic modifications of tobacco since the early 90s, said that even though the tobacco industry has had success on the scientific side of manipulating chemical levels in tobacco leaves, the dangers of smoking could never be eliminated.

'They've already demonstrated they can... reduce the toxicant level in the leaf and reduce the toxicant level a little bit in the finished product,' he said. 'But the reality is that when you finish with all these modifications, you're going to stuff the leaves into a cigarette and burn it.'

And at the end of the day, Zeller pointed out the obvious: inhaling smoke is still inhaling smoke:

There are at least 69 known carcinogens in tobacco smoke. Let's say they could bring about reductions in 15 or 20 of them, and that's being very charitable. We don't know how big the reductions are and nobody in the tobacco industry can tell you what that actually means in terms of reducing risk. It doesn’t mean anything in public health in terms of reducing harm at the population level.

Check out our post on the history of genetically engineering tobacco to find out how tobacco companies are already modifying tobacco for fun and profit.

See our other posts in this beatblogged investigation of genetically modified tobacco and the future of the cigarette:

Cigarette Maker Has Conducted 33 GM Tobacco Tests Since '05 Philip Morris Tries to Engineer the Cancer Out of Tobacco

Image: Cigarettes in cans, like these from Taiwan, are probably not a major feature of the future of tobacco.

Credit: flickr/Gwire

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