Prof To Fight Big Tobacco In Senate

Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) Professor Gregory N. Connolly, whose findings on the rising nicotine content in cigarettes drew ire from tobacco giant Philip Morris USA last month, will bring his fight against Big Tobacco to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday.

Connolly will appear before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee to argue in support of legislation recently introduced by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56 (D-Mass.) and Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) calling upon the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate the cigarette and smokeless tobacco industries.

A similar bill calling for FDA regulation passed in the Senate three years ago but failed in the House of Representatives.

Connolly said he hopes that FDA regulation of the tobacco industry will lead to greater reductions in the level of nicotine found in cigarettes.

“We’ve spent decades relying on the tobacco industry and on their science and it’s been a disaster,” Connolly said. “We can’t trust this industry for self-regulation.”

A study published last month by Connolly and colleagues Hillel R. Alpert, Geoffrey F. Wayne, and Howard Koh showed an increase in the level of nicotine found in cigarettes across all brands and types from 1998 through 2005.

Nicotine levels rose by an average of 1.6 percent annually over the seven-year period, according to the study, accumulating an 11 percent increase over the course of the entire study.

In a statement released last month, Philip Morris disputed the results of the HSPH study, asserting that nicotine levels in cigarettes from 1997 and 2006 were “the same.”

The company says that any fluctuations in nicotine levels during the intermediate years are due to natural variations in the nicotine content of tobacco leaves, rather than any action taken by the company.

Phillip Morris declined to comment for this story, citing a corporate policy prohibiting comment to publications whose readership is largely under 21 years old. The legal age to purchase cigarettes in Massachusetts is 18.

But Connolly said that he and his fellow researchers at HSPH found considerable variation in nicotine levels across the years, and that “the chance that it comes from nicotine leaf content is 1 in 1000.”

Connolly said none of the analysis produced by Phillip Morris has included any of the basic statistical measures—such as p-values or R-squared values—necessary to make the analysis valid.

In a letter published in several news sources, John R. Nelson, president of operations and technology for Philip Morris USA, said that “contrary to the implications of the [HSPH] report, we have not changed the design of our cigarettes with the intention of increasing nicotine yields in order to make the product more addictive.”

However, Connolly said that FDA regulation of the tobacco industry is essential to determine whether Philip Morris’ claims are correct.

“If we knew that they’re actually lowering nicotine, I’d be the happiest man in medicine,” Connolly said.