The secret and soul of marlboro

Long before the widespread use of freebasing, tobacco industry scientists knew that nicotine deliveries were sensitive to pH manipulation (by adding acids or bases). Several documents from the 1930s and 1940s discuss how to reduce the amount of free nicotine in tobacco by adding an organic acid, which would combine with the free nicotine base to form a (bound) nicotine salt.37 Free (vs &#x0201c combined&#x0201d ) nicotine in those early years was often characterized as &#x0201c toxic,&#x0201d 38 which made sense at a time prior to the push to reduce tar and nicotine in the &#x0201c filter wars&#x0201d and &#x0201c tar derby&#x0201d of the 1950s and 1960s. Many other industry documents from this earlier period describe the well known art of denicotinization, which often used a base (such as ammonia) and steam to remove the offending alkaloid from tobacco. Denicotinization involves some of the same processes as freebasing, although the desired outcomes are different. Denicotinization involves the application of gaseous ammonia so that, upon addition of steam, the nicotine can be removed freebasing impregnates tobacco with a salt (such as DAP) so that ammonia is released when the cigarette is lit, making nicotine more available to the smoker.

Tobacco chemists knew enough to freebase nicotine as early as the 1930s and 1940s,39 but there was little reason then to manipulate cigarettes in this manner. Smoking was not yet widely accepted as a cause of lung and heart disease,40 and most people still smoked cigarettes yielding very high levels of tar and nicotine. Only beginning with the &#x0201c health scare&#x0201d of the 1950s, and with increasing urgency in the 1960s and 1970s, did Philip Morris and the other manufacturers scramble to appease a rattled public by marketing cigarettes with lower levels of tar and nicotine, which is where the value of ammoniation came in.

It is difficult to say whether Philip Morris scientists expected diammonium phosphate to increase the availability of free nicotine in its new version of Marlboro, introduced in the mid 1950s. After all, the compound was largely being used as a pectin releaser and flavorant in reconstituted tobacco. Philip Morris chemists were, however, experts in pH manipulation, as were chemists more generally. Freebasing was not an unknown phenomenon, but there was not yet a practical need for it in the cigarette business.

In 1962, a Philip Morris study found diammonium phosphate products delivering 0.57 mg of nicotine per cigarette versus 0.44 mg in untreated tobaccos.41 Keenly aware of the increasing demand for cigarettes low in nicotine,42 Philip Morris later used its patented DAP BL process to give its &#x0201c low yield&#x0201d Merit brand an edge over its competitors. Merit cigarettes boasted a total nicotine yield (measured by Federal Trade Commission machines) only half of that found in Marlboros, but still managed to make available the same amount of free nicotine to smokers (about 0.33 mg in both instances). Brown and Williamson scientists reflected on this in 1980, commenting that &#x0201c in theory a person smoking these cigarettes Merit and Marlboro would not find an appreciable difference in the physiological satisfaction from either based on the amount of free nicotine delivered.&#x0201d 43

This was not the first time Brown and Williamson had pondered the value of freebasing. Its parent company, British American Tobacco, in the mid 1960s had recognized along with Philip Morris that the &#x0201c strength&#x0201d or &#x0201c impact&#x0201d of a cigarette was related not to the total nicotine content of the smoke but rather to the amount of &#x0201c extractable&#x0201d or &#x0201c free&#x0201d nicotine, which varied significantly with smoke pH.44 Brown and Williamson in 1971 had given the code name UKELON to urea, an ammonia source that the company recognized as &#x0201c a way of achieving normal impact from low tar cigarettes.&#x0201d 45 The same company&#x02019 s &#x0201c Project LTS&#x0201d (low &#x0201c tar&#x0201d satisfaction) acknowledged that free (un protonated) nicotine was &#x0201c more readily absorbed and thus has a decidedly satisfying effect on the smokers&#x02019 taste receptors.&#x0201d The goal of LTS was a cigarette containing &#x0201c greater levels of &#x02018 free&#x02019 nicotine&#x0201d in &#x0201c an enhanced alkaline environment.&#x0201d 46 By 1980, the company had concluded that &#x0201c we have sufficient expertise available to &#x02018 build&#x02019 a lowered mg tar cigarette which will deliver as much &#x02018 free nicotine&#x02019 as a Marlboro, Winston or Kent without increasing the total nicotine delivery above that of a &#x02018 Light&#x02019 product.&#x0201d 47

Apart from DAP BL recon, Philip Morris experimented with other kinds of ammonia technology. As early as 1957, for example, the company came up with the economically unfeasible &#x0201c New Idea No. 46&#x0201d 48 to &#x0201c soak stems in liquid ammonia,&#x0201d imparting to them greater &#x0201c protein like&#x0201d material and &#x0201c those properties now being produced by the aqueous NaOH, by virtue of its basic nature.&#x0201d 49 The ammonia was difficult to recycle, however, and the idea was quickly abandoned. A 1966 progress report on &#x0201c nicotine and smoke pH&#x0201d discussed the results of adding ammonium carbonate and oxalic acid to tobacco and concluded that nicotine deliveries could be &#x0201c controlled via filler or smoke pH adjustment.&#x0201d 50 Throughout this time, from the mid 1960s through the 1970s and 1980s, the company kept a close eye on the pH levels of its major brands.51

Happy birthday marlboro: the cigarette whose taste outlasts its customers

The market share for Marlboro steadily increased to over 10&#x00025 by 1971, to over 20&#x00025 by 1983, to over 30&#x00025 by 1995, and to over 40&#x00025 by 2005. Marlboro cigarettes have killed more than 2.3 million Americans since 1955 with another expected 1.6 million deaths in the next 10 years. Put another way, in 2005, Marlboro is estimated to account for 30&#x00025 of all smoking&#x02010 attributable deaths in the United States.

It is important to recognise that the estimates presented in this paper are subject to limitations including the length of the lag period used, the amount smoked by Marlboro smokers compared to other smokers, and brand switching to and from Marlboro products however, there is no getting around the overall conclusion that Marlboro is by far and away the most lethal consumer product ever produced. More Americans have died or will die because of Marlboro than US soldiers who have died in all foreign wars combined.6 However, merely considering the number of deaths attributable to Marlboro in the United States over the past half century is surely a huge underestimate of the total death toll from Marlboro, given the brands position as the world’s best selling cigarette. According to a recent Philip Morris International report, Marlboro is considered the greatest asset of the company with projected strong growth predicted for the future worldwide.7 With the death toll from tobacco estimated to reach 10 million annually by 2020, it is likely that Marlboro’s next 50 years could prove to be its most deadly.8

Birthdays are a time to reflect on the good and bad that has taken place in the past and what the future might hold. Perhaps instead of sponsoring a birthday bash commemorating 50 years of the Marlboro man, Philip Morris should hold a funeral and send the Marlboro man to his grave like so many of his loyal customers.