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Cigarette tar directly linked to cancer

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October 17, 1996
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From Correspondent Eugenia Halsey

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Add this to the evidence that smoking is bad for you: Scientists say they have found the component of cigarette smoke that causes lung cancer. The study, published in Thursday's issue of the journal Science, says the factor is found in the tar of cigarette smoke.

"We have found a specific component of cigarette smoke, benzo pyrene, to be very strongly implicated in lung cancer development," said Gerd Pfeifer, a researcher at City of Hope Medical Center, a cancer center near Los Angeles.

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Pfeifer says scientists knew tobacco tar contained numerous possible cancer-causing agents, but now he says his team has pinpointed the exact one. When the scientists put the benzo (a) pyrene chemical compound on human lung cells, a gene called p53 that normally keeps tumors from forming was damaged.

The cells then started dividing abnormally, eventually leading to tumors. "We found that the DNA in these cells gets specifically damaged at the same sites where people find mutations in lung cancer tissue," Pfeifer said.

Researcher say the finding refutes the tobacco industry's long-standing claim that there is no scientific proof that cigarette smoking causes cancer, despite stacks of studies showing people who smoke are more likely to develop the disease.

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A spokesman for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company played down the research's significance, while Philip Morris declined comment.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is attempting to regulate tobacco, also declined comment on the study.

But anti-smoking activists say the discovery could help efforts to compensate smokers through hundreds of lawsuits being brought against the tobacco industry.

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"This finding will definitely be the death sentence for the tobacco industry, because it is the final, last step, the conclusive proof, the smoking gun if you will, that tobacco smoke causes lung cancer," said John Banzhaf of the group Action on Smoking and Health.

Other scientists are skeptical of Banzhaf's view. They say while the study provides one more important piece of evidence, they doubt it will change the legal landscape much, since thousands of other studies documenting a strong link between smoking and lung cancer have failed to do so.

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