Antioxidant compound lessens tobacco's toxicity
By Randy Southerland
, Contributing Writer
Atlanta Business Chronicle
July 26, 2002

lthough public health advocates say there's no such thing as a low-risk cigarette, Dr. Theodore Hersh believes his Thione Complex product may be just the thing for those who can't or won't kick the habit.

Hersh, a former professor of medicine at Emory University and chairman of Thione International Inc., has patented an antioxidant compound which, when added to cigarette filters, can reduce the toxicity of tobacco.

Founded in 1995, the company produces a line of health products. These products contain a mixture of antioxidants such as L-glutathione and selenium that help prevent the harmful effects of free radicals — harmful molecules produced by excess sun exposure, pollutants, alcohol consumption, poor diet and other stresses that can damage DNA, cells and tissues.

"This way, we thought, a smoker will inhale fewer free radicals and they'll receive protection from the free radical damage that is made by the other chemicals in tobacco," Hersh said.

Smokers typically inhale millions of free radicals with every puff — the number varies with the type of tobacco and the number of chemical additives it contains.

Research conducted by the Technion Institute found that cigarette smoke passing through treated filters was less harmful to cultures of human cells than smoke passing through untreated filters.

Not safer
The Thione Complex will not make cigarettes safe, Hersh said, but simply less likely to trigger a smoking-related illness. Decades of research have linked smoking to a host of ills including cancer, arteriosclerosis, emphysema, liver and gut disorders, and rheumatoid arthritis, among others.

Company officials hope to capitalize on tobacco industry interest in producing a reduced risk cigarette.

Many companies have tried to develop less toxic products with varying degrees of success. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., for example, is test marketing Eclipse cigarettes, which primarily heat tobacco rather than burning it. Company officials say, however, that while the cigarette offers a number of benefits — it produces 80 percent less secondhand smoke and no lingering odor — it faces an uphill battle in gaining consumer acceptance.

Eclipse doesn't taste the same, and since the tobacco is only heated, it never burns down like a conventional cigarette. An earlier version of the cigarette was scrapped in the midst of consumer apathy and criticism by public health officials.

"There is great interest among smokers [for a safer cigarette]," said Seth Moskowitz, spokes-man for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. "In fact, their number one want as we've seen in surveys is a product that may present less risk. However, we found that smokers generally are not willing to make any great sacrifices in terms of taste."

Thione officials say adding their product to cigarette filters doesn't alter the taste or smoking experience and won't require any changes in the manufacturing process.

"The three criteria are that you cannot affect taste, draw or production in any way," said Gary Falconbridge, Thione's chief operation officer.

Thione had secured working relationships and agreements to further efficacy testing with several major tobacco companies, he said. A consumer product could be rolled out in as little as a year.

Public health advocates say that no cigarette can be considered less risky.

"Certainly one of the concerns that I have about these characterizations and statements of a safer cigarette product is that it may create a false sense of security for some people to begin smoking," said Andy Lord, director of the American Cancer Society's Georgia Tobacco Initiative.

Lord said that instead of trying to develop safer cigarettes, resources should be devoted to successful techniques and procedures for helping smokers kick their addiction.

Researchers at the Duke University medical center found that even when smokers were repeatedly told they had a genetic predisposition to smoking-related cancers, they were no more likely to quit than their counterparts who had no such tendencies.

Huge potential market
The market for tobacco products is vast. Despite a concerted anti-smoking campaign by the World Health Organization, there are more than 1.1 billion smokers worldwide with more than 15 million in the United States alone. The WHO says that 4.2 million people die from smoking-related diseases yearly — a number that will rise to 10 million annually by the late 2020s.

© 2002 American City Business Journals Inc.