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Philip Morris Memo Describes Cigarettes as Nicotine "Delivery Devices," Nicotine as "Similar" to Cocaine


January 1996

In an internal memo leaked to The Wall Street Journal, a member of a Philip Morris working group wrote that nicotine is a drug similar to cocaine or morphine, and the main reason people smoke is "to deliver nicotine into their bodies" (Alix M. Freedman, "Philip Morris Memo Likens Nicotine to Cocaine," The Wall Street Journal, December 8, 1995, p. B1).

The memos are important because tobacco company executives have long maintained that tobacco is not addictive, and that people smoke for the flavor of tobacco. The message in these memos is starkly different, calling cigarettes "delivery systems" for nicotine, which is called "similar" to cocaine. "The smoker learns to control the delivery of nicotine through the smoking technique to create the desired mood state," the report says. The chemical effect of nicotine is critical to the Food and Drug Administration attempt to regulate nicotine as a drug and cigarettes as medical devices (60 Federal Register 41314 et seq., August 11, 1995).

The memo says that nicotine works on the brain within 8 to 10 seconds after the smoker inhales. "Nicotine mimics the body's most crucial neurotransmitter, acetylcholine (ACH), which controls heart rate and message sending within the brain," the letter says. The memo says that small amounts of nicotine tend to act as a stimulant and larger doses as a sedative.

"We have acknowledged in public documents that nicotine, like many, many other things, has pharmacological effects, but that doesn't mean that cigarette smoking is addictive," said Steven Parrish, spokesperson for Philip Morris. "This document nowhere says that nicotine produces addiction -- the document doesn't even discuss addiction."

The memo was not written by company employees, and was drafted by a non-scientist proposing a "safer" cigarette called Table, Parrish said. The proposed cigarette would have delivered the same amount of nicotine as other cigarettes while cutting the amount of tar and other harmful substances. Table was to have a design similar to R.J. Reynolds' short-lived "smokeless" cigarette Premier, which heated tobacco instead of burning it. The Table project was discontinued in 1992.