Jeffrey 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.
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.