RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Here's a question for people who just want to smoke. Is it possible to make a safer cigarette that will also appeal to them? It's been a decade since states settled their multibillion-dollar lawsuits over the public health costs of smoking, but there are still many questions about the future of tobacco companies. NPR's Debbie Elliott examines the issue in a report that concludes our series on NPR marking the 10th anniversary of the landmark tobacco settlement.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Walk into tobacco giant Phillip Morris' Center for Research and Technology in Richmond, Virginia, and you might think you'd landed at an advertising agency, or maybe an art school.
Dr. RICK SOLANA (Senior Vice President, Research and Technology, Philip Morris): This is a place we call the canvas. It's the center of the building, if you will. It's the connection between the laboratories and the offices where most of the scientists sit.
ELLIOTT: My escort is Rick Solana, the senior vice president for health sciences at Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris.
Dr. SOLANA: OK. So if we can walk down this way.
ELLIOTT: The glass building here is filled with whimsical bright-colored furniture, cantilevered stairways, and quirky play stations designed to stimulate innovation. Quotes from Picasso are posted near the elevators. This $350 million facility is where the company has staked its future. Solana swipes us through a secure laboratory door.
Dr. SOLANA: What they've been working on here recently is the sensory and the flavor impact of product designs that have the potential of being reduced-risk cigarettes.
ELLIOTT: Solana says some of the company's earlier attempts at marketing such products failed. One example is Accord, a cigarette that was electronically heated instead of ignited by fire.
Dr. SOLANA: A lot of technology went into that, but what we learned in the end was that we missed the mark because we didn't pay attention enough to the consumer. This was way too different of a way to smoke. It had the potential scientifically to become a reduced-risk product. But without consumer acceptance, that was not going to be realized.
ELLIOTT: The design was a stubby cigarette you put into a silver lighting device. It looked at lot like a digital thermometer.
Dr. SOLANA: And now with that description, does that make you want to smoke it?
ELLIOTT: Solana says test market smokers also rejected cigarettes that used carbon filters to reduced smoke exposure. In the smoking lab, a machine that resembles a computer hard drive is taking measured puffs from a Marlboro cigarette. The smoke is captured and then broken down for researcher Ila Skinner to analyze.
Ms. ILA SKINNER (Researcher, Philip Morris): It's gas chromatography mass spectrometry. You might see this on CSI.
ELLIOTT: A computer screen gives her a readout of the molecules in the smoke.
Ms. SKINNER: Each of these is a separate puff. And then I can look at when we work with flavors, how that's working in each individual puff and the whole smoke.
ELLIOTT: Another machine evaluates how quickly you taste the flavors and how long they last. Philip Morris is trying to capture the sensations that appeal to smokers while eliminating what causes disease. After the tour, I ask Rick Solana about the future.
Is this a matter of survival for the tobacco industry? I mean, look 50 years down the road. If there is no so-called safe cigarette by then, is this industry doomed?
Dr. SOLANA: Obviously. And the incidence of smoking is going down in the United States. The best thing that someone can do to reduce their risks of smoking is to quit. So that decline is good for public health and it should continue. What will happen in the future, I can't predict. But for those people who continue to smoke and choose to continue to smoke, they need an alternative that might reduce their risks.
Mr. MATT MYERS (President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids): We have no reason to believe that there is such a thing as a safe cigarette.
ELLIOTT: Matt Myers is president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. He says light and low-tar cigarettes misled smokers, and there's no reason to believe the industry's claims today.
Mr. MYERS: Unless we have an agency that has the authority to prevent a tobacco industry from claiming that new products are safer, the tobacco industry will continue to market products with claims that the public believes gives them an alternative to quitting.
ELLIOTT: Myers says the latest wave of smokeless tobacco products could be having that effect. The major cigarette makers now market snus, a little teabag-like pouch of spitless tobacco that users put between their cheek and gum. They're billed as an option when you can't light up. R.J. Reynolds is test marketing Camel sticks, strips, and orbs, which dissolve in your mouth.
Myers supports legislation pending in Congress that would give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco. It would impose strict curbs on advertising and limit what companies could say about new products. The agency would have jurisdiction over the way cigarettes are made and sold. It's something that's been in the works since 1994 when Big Tobacco CEOs made their now-infamous appearance on Capitol Hill.
(Soundbite of vintage recording)
Mr. EDWARD HORRIGAN (Chairman and CEO of Liggett Group): I believe that nicotine is not addictive.
Mr. THOMAS SANDEFUR (Chairman and CEO, Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company): I believe that nicotine is not addictive.
Mr. DONALD JOHNSTON (President and CEO, American Tobacco Company): And I, too, believe that nicotine is not addictive.
ELLIOTT: Now the companies admit that smoking is addictive and deadly. And the industry leader, Philip Morris, is in favor of the FDA legislation. But critics have dubbed it the "Marlboro protection act", after the company's top-selling brand.
Mr. TOMMY PAYNE (Executive Vice President of Public Affairs, Reynolds American): It virtually shuts off all competition.
ELLIOTT: Tommy Payne is a vice president at Reynolds American, Philip Morris's closest competitor.
Mr. PAYNE: In any circumstance where you shut off competition, the current largest player tends to cement their market share and is the ultimate winner.
ELLIOTT: When the FDA legislation passed the House earlier this year, its sponsor was California Democrat Henry Waxman, the congressman who chaired that Big Tobacco hearing 14 years ago.
Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): It's taken a very long time. I think the landscape in this country has changed since that historic hearing.
ELLIOTT: Indeed, nearly half of U.S. states now have indoor smoking bans. And for the first time, the adult smoking rate has dropped below 20 percent. The question is what those remaining addicted smokers will be using in the future and whether the federal government will have a say in how it's designed. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol.
MONTAGNE: And you can see the other reports in our tobacco series, plus learn more about the state of smoking in the U.S., by visiting our Web site, npr.org.