The Food and Drug Administration is working to lift the smokescreen clouding the ingredients used in cigarettes and other tobacco products. In June, tobacco companies must tell the FDA their formulas for the first time, just as drugmakers have for decades. Manufacturers also will have to turn over any studies they've done on the effects of the ingredients.
Companies have long acknowledged using cocoa, coffee, menthol and other additives to make tobacco taste better. The new information will help the FDA determine which ingredients might also make tobacco more harmful or addictive. It will also use the data to develop standards for tobacco products and could ban some ingredients or combinations.
While the FDA must keep much of the data confidential under trade-secret laws, it will publish a list of harmful and potentially harmful ingredients by June 2011. Under the law, it must be listed by quantity in each brand.
Some tobacco companies have voluntarily listed product ingredients online in recent years but never with the specificity they must give the FDA, said Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Cigarette makers say their products include contain tobacco, water, sugar and flavorings, along with chemicals like diammonium phosphate, a chemical used to improve burn rate and taste, and ammonium hydroxide, used to improve the taste.
Scientific studies suggest those chemicals also could make the body more easily absorb nicotine, the active and addictive component of tobacco.
"Until now, the tobacco companies were free to manipulate their product in ways to maximize sales, no matter the impact on the number of people who died or became addicted," Myers said. "The manner of disclosure previously made it impossible for the government to make any meaningful assessments."
About 46 million people, or 20.6 percent of U.S. adults smoke cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, down from about 24 percent 10 years ago. It also estimates that about 443,000 people in the U.S. die each year from diseases linked to smoking.
Tax increases, health concerns, smoking bans and social stigma continue to cut into the number of cigarettes sold, which were estimated to be down about 12.6 percent in the third quarter compared with the same period last year.
Cigarettes and their smoke contain more than 4,000 chemicals; among them are more than 60 known carcinogens, according to the American Cancer Society. But scientists say they can't yet tell all they'll learn from the new data because so little is known about how the chemicals combine to affect people.
DID YOU KNOW?
Altria Group Inc., based in Richmond, is the parent company of the nation's largest tobacco maker, Philip Morris USA. It's brands include Marlboro, which holds a 41.9% share of the U.S. cigarette market.