The first tobacco CEO to acknowledge smoking is addictive is offering a new cigarette made with genetically modified tobacco that lets smokers choose their level of nicotine.
Vector Tobacco Inc. stops short of marketing its Quest cigarettes as a smoking cessation product — a claim that could draw the regulatory attention of the Food and Drug Administration.
The cigarettes are, however, designed to allow smokers to cut back on nicotine, the addictive element in tobacco.
"The purpose of this product is to help people get to a nicotine-free environment, where they can have zero nicotine in their system. Then they can decide what to do from that point forward," said Bennett LeBow, who runs parent company Vector Group Ltd.
The company is spending $15 million on advertising for Quest in seven Mid-Atlantic and Midwest states beginning Monday. It also is funding research at Duke University on how Quest affects smokers' nicotine intake and urge to smoke.
"Quest is an intriguing curiosity," said Kenneth Warner, a public health professor and director of the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network, which studies smoking and health. "Whether it could be used by smokers to consciously wean themselves off smoking remains to be seen but is worthy of study."
LeBow's other tobacco company, Mebane-based Liggett Group, was the first to break ranks with Big Tobacco and settle smoking-related litigation in 1996. LeBow was the first tobacco CEO to acknowledge that smoking is addictive and causes serious health problems.
As long as Vector doesn't claim Quest is a smoking-cessation product, a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that bars the FDA from regulating the tobacco industry allows the cigarette onto the market without the extensive testing required of approved stop-smoking products.
Although the company says Quest contains only trace amounts of nicotine, it makes no claims that the cigarette reduces carbon monoxide or the chemicals that increase the risk of cancer. Smoking also is linked to heart disease, emphysema and birth defects.
Cigarette makers have been challenged on some of their claims, including the use of "light" in marketing some cigarettes, which smokers have complained mislead them to believe the cigarettes were less harmful.
A class-action lawsuit now in court in Illinois accuses the maker of Marlboro Lights and Cambridge Lights of misleading customers to that end. A lawyer for the company argues that the cigarette-maker never meant people to believe that smoking "light" cigarettes would be less harmful than smoking regular ones.
Quest takes a different approach. It allows smokers to choose their nicotine content: Quest 1 has 17 percent less nicotine than an average light cigarette, the company said. Quest 2 has 58 percent less nicotine, and Quest 3 is virtually nicotine-free.
Duke University nicotine researcher Dr. Jed Rose is testing users of Quest and the nicotine patch with a group using Quest alone. Rose, the co-inventor of the nicotine patch who is director of Duke's Nicotine Research Program, said subjects have been able to step down their nicotine intake but have been unable to put down their Quest 3 smokes within six weeks.
John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, an anti-tobacco health organization in Washington, D.C., questioned why people would buy the cigarette.
"The reason that most people smoke is that they want their nicotine. They smoke solely because they want that nicotine kick," Banzhaf said.
Quest's launch follows Vector Tobacco's disappointing 2001 launch of Omni, which has normal nicotine levels but is treated to reduce cancer-causing compounds.
LeBow said human studies are underway to prove smoking Omni reduces the risk of cancer. Depending on test results and customer acceptance, Vector could one day market a cigarette that features both reduced carcinogens and virtually no nicotine, he said.
The seven states where Quest is being sold are New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, the company said.