They called it “the secret of Marlboro.”
R.J. Reynolds was desperate in the mid-1970s to learn why its leading brand, Winston, was losing market share to Philip Morris’ Marlboro. So were other tobacco companies that were losing out in a ruthlessly competitive business.
“We couldn’t figure out what the success of Marlboro was,” said David Bernick, an attorney for Brown & Williamson. “We couldn’t figure out why it was that Marlboro was taking off in sales.”
The reason, as it turned out, was ammonia, a chemical that boosted Marlboro’s nicotine “kick” and improved the taste at the same time, according to documents and testimony emerging from Minnesota’s lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
“The secret of Marlboro is ammonia,” according to a 1989 Brown & Williamson document. “Ammonia does many good things.”
Two expert witnesses for the state told the jury in detail how tobacco companies use various ammonia compounds to alter the chemistry of cigarette smoke to give smokers a stronger nicotine dose.
The way ammonia works, they said, is that it makes the smoke less acidic. That changes a portion of its nicotine into “free nicotine,” a form that is more readily absorbed in the lungs. Free nicotine’s effects are felt in the brain within seconds.
The experts - a Mayo Clinic authority on nicotine addiction and a Stanford University chemical engineering professor - said boosting free nicotine also ensured that cigarettes would remain addictive even though the companies were bringing out low-tar, low-nicotine brands.
“What the industry was concerned with, in the face of lowering tar, is the problem they would face if nicotine levels dropped” below the level needed to keep smokers hooked, testified Channing Robertson of Stanford. “They didn’t want to go out of business.”
Marlboro was the first major brand to really capitalize on ammonia, jurors learned.
Documents showed that Reynolds, maker of the competing Winston brand, began experimenting with the chemical in the 1950s but didn’t incorporate it into its products until the mid-1970s.
Reynolds’ scientists learned that Philip Morris had begun using an ammoniated form of tobacco in 1965 and used more and more of it from 1965 to 1974. “This time period corresponds to the dramatic sales increase Philip Morris made from 1965 to 1974,” one document said.
A 1973 Reynolds report shown to jurors said Marlboro’s and Winston’s overall tar and nicotine levels had dropped by two-thirds over the years, but Marlboro’s free-nicotine level stayed about the same while Winston’s free nicotine fell by two-thirds.
The report advocated copying Marlboro’s approach.
Reynolds didn’t get the technology into the marketplace until the mid-1970s, when it started putting ammoniated tobacco in its Camel Filter cigarettes, the documents showed.
“Better market performance was indicated in the subsequent years,” one said. After Reynolds started adding ammoniated tobacco to Winston in 1979, “market tests indicated significant product improvement.”
Robertson said learning how to boost levels of free nicotine was one of the companies’ highest priorities - and one of their deepest secrets.
“They never told anyone outside the walls of their research citadels that they were doing this,” he said.
And the order in which companies entered the ammonia race corresponds with their market shares today, Robertson said.
Bernick has played down the state’s contention that the main reason for ammonia is to boost free nicotine levels to keep smokers hooked. He has played up the industry’s position that ammonia results in a better-tasting, smoother smoke.
“Where do the companies compete?” Bernick asked at the start of the trial. “They compete for that great-tasting cigarette that people will like.”
He suggested while cross-examining Robertson that ammonia reacts with sugars in the tobacco to give Marlboro a “roasty, toasty” flavor and that this was a main reason other companies pursued the technology.
Bernick, who has done most of the talking for the industry in front of the jury so far, also suggested that a host of other factors besides ammonia affects smoke pH - a measure of acidity versus alkalinity. When added sugars burn, he contended, they make the smoke more acidic.
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