Has Big Tobacco Genetically Engineered Cigarettes to Keep People Addicted?



The' genetically engineered tobacco incident has finally come out, in the sense that it was mentioned on the evening news 2 July 97. It was mentioned because there may be (why not?) criminal charges because tobacco officials had denied this sort of enterprise. Probably the media will be content with this narrow angle on the issue, and citizens will not be able to depend on them to get related facts and explore the broader implications.

Yet we need to get all the details that we can, and this letter will end with a plea for help, once some background information first has been sketched out.

It seems noteworthy that with all the publicity that the escapades of the tobacco companies are currently getting, this particular matter had not gotten into the news earlier. Perhaps all that was published was in a report in American Medical News for December 25, 1995 of a talk given by David Kessler. Kessler was trying to prove to the AMA group that his agency was really after the tobacco industry and that they had gone to great lengths to uncover details of a sleazy operation. Acting on a tip, they discovered that Brown and Williamson Co. indeed had used genetically engineering to make tobacco with high nicotine content. They patented it in Brazil in Portuguese and had quitely even shipped 4,000,000 pounds of the genetically engineered, high nicotine content, tobacco into the U.S.

The apparent media silence (over several years! and now at a critical time) could be an innocent issue of neglect on both the parts of regulatory agencies and the press.

But also, conflicts of interest surely exist, and may have been operating. For example: The community of medical researchers at NIH and those associated with them are deeply invested in genetic engineering and therefore may not be especially proactive in spreading the word. Many of the researchers and administrators hold stock, depend on biotech grants to maintain their professional status, or depend for their security on letters of reference from those who hold stocks or have big grants. Many of us know from personal contacts that people in the biotech community are extremely sensitive to anything that might damage the image of the industry and influence stock prices, investments, grants, or inspire effective government regulation.

Probably Kessler really does want to combat smoking. But he is a physician and has ties to NIH, which in turn has the variety of interests in biotech just mentioned.

Moreover, the biotech industry/community has massive political power and active lobby and public relations efforts. Kessler may well not want to take on both the tobacco industry and the biotech industry/community. And he would have several reasons if this is the case.

Similarly perhaps: One of our scientist friends called a science editor to ask why he was giving a particular misleading spin to some biosafety issues.(He was seeking background for a book -- trying to analyse why society can't seem to have an intelligent public discussion on how they can use the exciting potential of genetic engineering responsibly, even though the public paid to develop it.) The newspaper writer understood the truth of the matter exactly (about the deaths and cripplings caused by L-tryptophan that had been made from genetically engineered bacteria), but he pleaded, "This genetic engineering stuff is too exciting to stop. Rifkin would use those facts as ammunition to destroy genetic engineering. We can't give him ammunition " He had picked up the stock jargon and slogans and boogy-men of biotech's PR people. The scientist judged that he was in general geared up to be a conduit for hot new information on exciting discoveries' and was not about to upset his sources. He as much as said so. He had a conflict of interest, it appeared, between his reliance on ties with PR types in a powerful industry and any public notion that his job was to report all the truth.

Another facet to the long silence on the genetically engineered tobacco could be that some have been taken in by the argument that that this genetically engineered tobacco could in the long run be a good thing! If this high potency tobacco really does have a strong kick but less tars, one might think that this could have a place in the future of a public that may never give up smoking entirely. Put the incident away for a few years and bring it back at the right time and genetic engineering might even look heroic! The article on Kessler might seem to suggest this in the sentence "More important, they admitted that Y-1 was intended as a blending tool' to lower the tar yield in certain products while maintaining the nicotine level." But while tars do contribute to cancers, the nicotine itself is a major killer because of its contributions to vascular diseases and heart attacks.The sentence only really says that they tried to use this (lame) argument -- perhaps they were defending themselves or hoping to increase sales by playing on the belief of many smokers that that cigarettes with reduced tar would be mostly safe.

In any case, scientists involved in science policy issues and other academics surely have the right to know what is going on, but it is even difficult for scholars to get the details. And surely ordinary citizens have a right to understand how the system that we are paying for works. Ordinary citizens understand what it means that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.' The case of the genetically engineered tobacco certainly is an issue for citizens in states where officials have been skeptical of the Big Settlement with the tobacco companies. Some officials stuck their necks out early in expressing distrust at the proposed Big Deal with tobacco companies at a time when skeptics were in the minority. Citizens thus have a particular interest in understanding how devious the tobacco companies can be, and how much distrust they deserve, so that they can judge the positions taken by their public officials.

Those of us will be suspicious of the proposed Big Deal sho have spent many years of working with a variety of agencies, congressional staff, and NGOs in Washington and have observed that the regulatory agencies cannot be trusted when so much money and political clout is in motion. Some of us have also seen the 1988 GAO report (Biotechnology: Managing the Risks of Field Testing Genetically Engineered Organisms) criticizing the agencies on their failure to use modern science in the regulation of genetic engineering, and the feeble replies of the agencies. Not much has changed since then for the better, and much is actually worse. Some of us have seen the more recent, 1995, extensively documented, PEER report put out by brave EPA employees, criticizing the fact that their higher ups had ignored good science and had been playing politics on biosafety (Genetic Genie: The Premature Commercial Release of Genetically Engineered Bacteria.).

How can the public trust our federal regulatory agencies to regulate tobacco when their track record has been so poor on other issues? I can go into much detail about these sorts of things when anyone really needs to know. I think that Minnesota officials such as Humphrey and others have been right to question whether the tobacco companies would be getting away with something in this deal, and the voters should be allowed to understand the various dimensions of the problem.

One person's interests in the case of the genetically engineered tobacco' may not be identical to those of others, but the hope is that if some of us can come up with useful details and publish them or circulate them we could each use that information as leads to further our own work. Maybe we can help each other.

Some of us will have interests that are mostly academic. Some scientists have been tracking the biotech community as a routine part of their analyses of the scientific aspects of biosafety and how the science plays out sociologically for.

Some have also been tracking it in order to better understand the changes that biotech has been and will be causing in science with regard to the structuring of federal funding programs, the political and intellectual organization of university teaching and research in biology, ethical standards, and efforts to shape scientific truths' for the public in ways that will support the economics and politics of biotech.

What does the biotech movement mean for professional biology institutionally and intellectually -- what does it mean for the science of life?'

Speaking of the academic scene and getting down specifically to tobacco now, one scientist tells of an incident from some dozen years ago. A visiting molecular biologist was lecturing at a university College of Biological Sciences on some aspect of gene-splicing and a student asked him, quite politely in tone and wording, why he was talking about feeding the world and saving people from starvation when his research was on the genetic engineering of tobacco. He landed on her like a ton of bricks and basically said that she was paranoid and disloyal to science for implying that genetic engineers would ever allow their science to be used to help tobacco companies make tobacco more addictive or profitable. He said that he was using tobacco only because it was a good experimental plant (it is) and the tobacco companies had an interest in understanding as much about the physiology of tobacco as they could so that they could grow more hardy plants, but they had no interest in genetically engineering it to be more addictive or whatever, if only because they knew that no molecular biologist would ever help them. That attack upon a bright and concerned student stuck in the mind's of many because she had a valid question and did not deserve to be humiliated. Specific Questions that Need to be Answered.

Creating a genetically engineered plant can be an enormous effort that draws upon networks of diverse and expensive projects. One scientist who some of us know directed a project to genetically engineer corn and it took about 10 years and 15 million dollars. In the case of tobacco we would like to know how the research was funded and administered that supported the ultimate development of genetically engineered tobacco. Some of us would eventually like to be able to learn, were federal funds involved? Were university scientists involved? If so, did they understood how their research would be used? If so, was there any effort to cover this up? Was any such research criticized by their peers or was it condoned? How big was any such effort and what period of time did it cover? If they did not understand how their research would be used, why not?

Some of us would also eventually like to be able to find out the scientific details of the genetic manipulations, if possible, and of the scientific research that led up to making the manipulations possible. Some of us would love to study a copy of the patent and any related patents. Can anyone out there get a copy or tell us how to get it?

What about government regulations? Did any persons in government agencies know what was going on? Corporations typically cover themselves and check with friends in the agencies to make sure that they understand how any regulations or guidelines' apply to their specific project, even though one can legally move many projects through the cracks between the several regulations and voluntary guidelines that apply to genetic engineering. There are big holes in the federal regulatory framework, but the biotech community tries to keep this quiet, because they do not in fact want effective regulation. They only want to be able to keep the public calm by saying that the government has everything under control and that the system is working. If Big Tobacco was able to sail through the holes in the system, or buy its way out, this would help to show up the system for what it is. So agency people may not go out of their ways to help get the facts out.

If there were any plantings in the United States, did the USDA know about them? Did they get scientific reviews on the projects or did they help the tobacco companies to cover up their activities?

Did EPA officials know what was going on? USDA, EPA, NIH, and FDA are the agencies that might have been contacted if there were any U.S. plantings and the researchers should have contacted at least one of them, if not USDA, then at least EPA.

As the NGO community and scientists well know, there are certainly examples of bureaucrats whose careers flourish when they are friendly to industry' and some have gone on to good jobs in industry after proving their loyalty. In fact, this is a fairly common career path.

Foreign countries have tended to be extremely sensitive when American or European companies have conducted genetic engineering experiments on their soil to avoid home country oversight. When the goverments were not told, then this has been seen as an insult. If the governments are told, but the citizens are not told, then the people would get mad at their governments. The biotech industry spokespersons promised independent scientists and NGOs at international meetings that the industry had been and would be policing itself, and they called Greenpeace's examples of secret' foreign projects lies. What in fact did Brazilian officials and citizens or those of other countries involved know about this or related projects? (Memory has it of a 1994 Greenpeace publication that attempted to catalogue secret and approved plantings in Third World Countries, that field plantings in Brazil and Zimbabwe had been approved only for tobacco that was being engineered to resist pests by the insertion of genes for viral coats.)

Last, but hardly least (!), there is the matter of the International Biosafety Protocol that is being drafted. The U.S. regulators' had tried furiously for more than 4 years to prevent it, and have shown loyalty to the biotech industry, and this has been rewarded. (Even though the U.S. has not signed the Biodiversity Treaty and has no official business in the matter!) And now the biotech promoters are trying to make sure that the protocol will be toothless in terms of technical capacity, regulatory provisions, and liability agreements. If the Brazilians or others were not told of the genetically engineered tobacco and this becomes widely known, it will make it harder for the industry/agencies detoothing efforts to prevail because the drafters of the protocol will be under more pressure from home to close loopholes and to assure accountability through liability. This would make it harder to sell our biotech products abroad because so many of them have not been properly evaluated for safety, in efforts to cut costs here. This would make it doubly tough on the industry because in addition they would not be able so easily to test' the safety of genetically engineered organisms in poor countries before selling here in the U.S. or Europe where it is much easier for the less politically vulnerable citizens to sue if they are harmed by a product.

We will need a lot of eyes and ears to see what if any useful information related to this does get into circulation. Perhaps, for example, the foreign press will do a better job with this than the U.S. press can, given its patterns of ownership and management.

Good luck. Hope to find some of you coming down the information highway with big truckloads of goodies.

Philip Regal, Professor
Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior
1987 Upper Buford Circle
University of Minnesota
St. Paul, Minnesota 55108 USA
Office Telephone (612) 624-6751
Home Telephone and answering machine (612) 379-1534
Dept. fax (612) 624-6777
e-mail regal001@maroon.tc.umn.edu

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