Attorney: Company manipulated nicotine

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. was researching manipulation of nicotine in the tobacco leaf as early as 1963, an attorney in Minnesota’s lawsuit against the industry said Wednesday.
Michael Ciresi cited a passage in a 1963 letter from a Brown & Williamson researcher to British-American Tobacco Co. Ltd.
The researcher, R. B. Griffith, wrote extensively about the blending of nicotine and sugar in cigarettes to please consumers. But his document also discussed the raw materials used in making cigarettes.
“Certainly, the nicotine level of B&W cigarettes given in the above table was not obtained by accident,” Griffith wrote. “It may be well to remind you, however, that we have a research program in progress to obtain, by genetic means, any level of nicotine desired.”
The letter was among documents introduced Tuesday in Minnesota’s $1.77 billion lawsuit against the industry to recover costs of treating smoking-related illness. No direct testimony was given on that passage of Griffith’s letter, but the documents were released to reporters at the end of the day.
A spokesman for Brown & Williamson in Louisville, Ky., said today he could not immediately comment on the letter.
In January, a California biotechnology company pleaded guilty to federal charges of growing high-nicotine tobacco overseas for a U.S. company from 1983 to 1994. Though federal prosecutors declined to name the company, people familiar with the investigation said it was Brown & Williamson.
On Tuesday, the state presented evidence that cigarette makers worried that they might lose business as they reduced nicotine below a certain threshold in their lower-tar and -nicotine cigarettes.
Ciresi showed the jury several formerly secret industry documents showing how tobacco researchers were looking for ways to avert that.
“Nicotine is an important aspect of ‘satisfaction,’ and if the nicotine delivery is reduced below a threshold ‘satisfaction’ level, then surely smokers will question more readily why they are indulging in an expensive habit,” said a 1976 report from the files of British-American Tobacco Co. Ltd.
The state also presented evidence that at least one tobacco company contemplated the possibility of adding traces of marijuana to cigarettes if the drug were ever legalized.
If marijuana were legalized, the BAT report said, “One avenue for exploitation would be the augmentation of cigarettes with near subliminal levels of the drug.”
Channing Robertson, a Stanford University chemical engineering professor testifying for the state, said that showed that although BAT considered its real product to be nicotine — not tobacco — the company was open to other possibilities.
A 1980 Lorillard memo shown to the jury advocated that the company determine the minimum level of nicotine that would keep people smoking.
“We hypothesize that below some very low nicotine level, diminished physiological satisfaction cannot be compensated for by psychological satisfaction,” the memo said. “At this point, smokers will quit, or return to higher T&N (tar and nicotine) brands.”
Minnesota, joined by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, is suing the tobacco industry to recover their costs for treating smoking-related illnesses. They also seek unspecified punitive damages.