What Have They Been Smoking?

Cigarettes tied together with stringJeffrey Wigand became one of the most famous whistleblowers of all time after he revealed the tobacco industry's darkest secrets starting in 1994. He is the former Brown & Williamson Vice President and scientist portrayed by Russell Crowe in the 1999 movie "The Insider".

Speaking this week in New Zealand, among other topics Dr. Wigand discussed nicotine manipulation and the little-known discovery that cigarette companies add an ingredient common in floor and toilet bowl cleaners, ammonia, to cigarettes to get more nicotine to the smoker's brain faster after lighting up.

Industry documents reveal that cigarette companies add ammonia to cigarettes to freebase nicotine, which gives the smoker a faster and more intense nicotine "kick." In the mid-1970s, R.J. Reynolds (RJR) the makers of Camel and Winston brands, noticed that sales of their competitor's brands, and especially Philip Morris's flagship brand Marlboro, were suddenly skyrocketing compared to their brands. Determined to find out why RJR's brands were doing so poorly compared to the others, RJR chemically "deconstructed" Marlboro cigarettes to find out just how they were different.

Freebasing Nicotine

By 1973, their research revealed the secret. RJR found that Philip Morris had made a "deliberate and controlled" chemical change in the smoke of their cigarettes. They started altering the pH, or acid/base balance, of smoke by adding ammonia to the tobacco. This make the smoke more alkaline. In a more alkaline environment, more nicotine "...occurs in 'free' form, which is volatile, rapidly absorbed by the smoker, and believed to be instantly perceived as nicotine 'kick'," according to RJR.

Adding ammonia to achieve this chemical reaction is called "freebasing." It's the same process comedian Richard Pryor was using 1980 when he set himself on fire while trying to freebase cocaine. It's also the exact same process that turns cocaine into crack. In the tobacco industry's case, though, it's done on a vast commercial scale.

After cigarette companies discovered that freebasing nicotine led to a sharp and sustained increase in cigarette sales, it became state-of-the art cigarette technology. It's also one of the chemical adjustments made to commercial cigarettes over the years that made smoking more difficult to quit, because it heightens the addiction to nicotine.

The Secret is in the Chemical Engineering

Cigarettes have undergone decades of chemical and design R&D to enhance their drug-related pleasurable aspects and ease of use. The modern cigarette contains smoke smootheners, humectants, burn accelerants (in the paper), sweeteners and other chemicals to make them more palatable and less irritating. They are arguably the most highly engineered and studied product in history. Neither cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin have been subjected to so many decades of intense, corporate-funded scientific research and development. Those illicit drugs are hard enough to quit, but imagine if a commercial corporate structure depended on them for profit, how much more enhanced those drugs would be as well.

Unfortunately, nothing in the new FDA tobacco law forces tobacco companies to stop freebasing nicotine in commercial cigarettes. Dr. Wigand's talk in New Zealand offers one more opportunity to remind people that despite the landmark legislation signed in 2009, it is still business-as-usual for the tobacco companies, and will be for some time to come. After all, Philip Morris only agreed to the legislation because they knew it would do little if anything to truly impact cigarette use in this country. For public health as well, everything remains status quo, including the hiding of ingredients and their purposes, from the public. For smokers, the only defense remains to become more knowledgeable about the product you use so frequently, and the people who make it.


Way back in 1967 I did a paper for my high school class about the effects of tobacco on humans. Even then nicotine was known to cause Lung Cancer and increase the users need for "Another smoke". My question is why hasn't our government stepped in and shut down there "Drug labs?" At the lease they should be forced to clean up their ace and use non-altered tobacco.

Thank you for the great information, smoking is bad for everyone. do even think about starting...

I would probably postulate that more people die of smoking than marijuana, but since there is no political will for this, nothing will get done.

"I would probably postulate that more people die of smoking than marijuana." Probably? Well known FACT.

All these years these cigarette companies are hiding this from us... It's just so sad to know that they are more concern about getting more money than the health of every people they fool....

This is really eyeopening information you are giving us about the cigarettes that we smoke everyday. We are smoking all kind of chemical stuff that we are not aware off! Shocking!

Prof Nutt used a lecture at King's College, London, to attack what he called the "artificial" separation of alcohol and tobacco from illegal drugs.

We should wonder why these facts, so clearly established in the article, are not being promoted. There is a worldwide campaign against smoking, too well coordinated not to think it has not been devised and orchestrated. So the questions is... why such an apparent worldwide interest an effort against smoking is just focusing in the health issues derivative from nicotine use and there is such a big omission about the specific manipulation of tobacco users by adding all those chemicals? I think it is a right for all smokers to know what the big companies are doing to keep them actively involved in consuming the next dose. An article such as this should be grounds for brainstorming ways to put the information out and also to demand focus on this to all health institutions and governments involved in the worldwide campaign. How?... Old media and new media. If they don´t do it, we should do it!

I pity our children's future if smoking is not prohibited all over the world. I really can not imagine my kids grow up in a world full of cigarette's smokes, which sadly is already happening in my country now. Check the smoker toddler's <a href="http://www.squidoo.com/story-of-a-smoker-toddler">story</a>.