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S P E C I A L Tobacco Under Attack

Expert: Ammonia added to cigarettes


Testimony continues in Minnesota's lawsuit against tobacco

February 4, 1998
Web posted at: 10:24 p.m. EST (0324 GMT)

ST. PAUL, Minnesota (CNN) -- Tobacco companies began adding ammonia compounds to cigarettes in the 1960s to boost the effect of nicotine on smokers, according to an expert witness in Minnesota's lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

Pointing to internal company documents, Channing Robertson, testifying on behalf of the state Wednesday, said that in 1965, scientists at R.J. Reynolds, trying to find out why their Winston brand was losing ground to Philip Morris' Marlboro brand, discovered that Marlboro contained ammonia compounds.

Robertson, a Stanford University professor of chemical engineering, said ammonia increases the nicotine potency of cigarettes by increasing the amount of nicotine contained in the vapor smokers inhale.

In the 1970s, Reynolds started adding ammonia and "slowly but surely, everyone fell in line," he said.

By 1989, documents showed that tobacco companies were using more than 10 million pounds of ammonia compounds each year, Robertson said.

And adding ammonia wasn't the only strategy tobacco companies used, according to Robertson.

Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. developed a genetically altered strain of tobacco with twice the nicotine content and used it in cigarettes sold in the United States, Robertson testified.

An undated Brown & Williamson internal document described a "Y-1" tobacco strain with a nicotine content of 6.5 percent by weight.

"Through genetic engineering they were able to develop a tobacco strain with twice as much nicotine as it might otherwise have," Robertson said.

"I am aware that the Y-1 product was contained in cigarettes sold in the United States," Robertson said.

The existence and sale of the high-nicotine Y-1 tobacco has been reported before. A California biotechnology company pleaded guilty in January to conspiring with Brown & Williamson to grow and improve the high-nicotine tobacco abroad from 1983 to 1994, when the export of U.S.-developed seeds without a permit was illegal.

But Robertson's testimony allowed the state to put the information before the jury. Among several allegations, the state accuses tobacco companies of manipulating nicotine levels in cigarettes and conspiring to mislead consumers about the dangers of smoking.

One industry memo showed how tiny ventilation holes were drilled in the sides of filters on low-tar cigarettes. That increased the pH of the tobacco smoke, which also tends to increase the potency of nicotine, Robertson said.

Along the same lines, companies also lowered the sugar levels in tobacco, to increase alkalinity and therefore the amount of nicotine available to smokers in cigarette vapor.

The state of Minnesota and Blue Cross and Blue Shield have sued the tobacco industry to recover the costs of providing health care to smokers.

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