Stanton Glantz and colleagues analyzed previously secret tobacco industry documents and peer-reviewed published results of Philip Morris' Project MIX about research on cigarette additives, and show that this research on the use of cigarette additives cannot be taken at face value.
In 2009, the promulgation of US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tobacco regulation focused attention on cigarette flavor additives. The tobacco industry had prepared for this eventuality by initiating a research program focusing on additive toxicity. The objective of this study was to analyze Philip Morris' Project MIX as a case study of tobacco industry scientific research being positioned strategically to prevent anticipated tobacco control regulations.
Methods and Findings
We analyzed previously secret tobacco industry documents to identify internal strategies for research on cigarette additives and reanalyzed tobacco industry peer-reviewed published results of this research. We focused on the key group of studies conducted by Phillip Morris in a coordinated effort known as “Project MIX.” Documents showed that Project MIX subsumed the study of various combinations of 333 cigarette additives. In addition to multiple internal reports, this work also led to four peer-reviewed publications (published in 2001). These papers concluded that there was no evidence of substantial toxicity attributable to the cigarette additives studied. Internal documents revealed post hoc changes in analytical protocols after initial statistical findings indicated an additive-associated increase in cigarette toxicity as well as increased total particulate matter (TPM) concentrations in additive-modified cigarette smoke. By expressing the data adjusted by TPM concentration, the published papers obscured this underlying toxicity and particulate increase. The animal toxicology results were based on a small number of rats in each experiment, raising the possibility that the failure to detect statistically significant changes in the end points was due to underpowering the experiments rather than lack of a real effect.
The case study of Project MIX shows tobacco industry scientific research on the use of cigarette additives cannot be taken at face value. The results demonstrate that toxins in cigarette smoke increase substantially when additives are put in cigarettes, including the level of TPM. In particular, regulatory authorities, including the FDA and similar agencies elsewhere, could use the Project MIX data to eliminate the use of these 333 additives (including menthol) from cigarettes.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
The tobacco industry in the United States has recognized that regulation of its products was inevitable as early as 1963 and devoted increasing attention to the likelihood of regulation by the US Food and Drug Administration in the mid-1990s, which finally became law in 2009. In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), which came into force in June 2003, includes provisions addressing the regulation of the contents of tobacco products and the regulation of tobacco product disclosures. Although these steps represent progress in tobacco control, the events of the past few decades show the determination of the tobacco industry to avoid regulation, including the regulation of additives. In the United States, executives of the tobacco company Philip Morris (PM) recognized the inevitability of regulation and responded by initiating efforts to shape legislation and regulation by reorganizing its internal scientific activities and conducting scientific research that could be used to shape any proposed regulations. For example, the company conducted “Project MIX,” a study of chemical constituents in and toxicity of smoke produced by burning cigarettes containing three different combinations of 333 cigarette additives that “were constructed to resemble typical commercial blended cigarettes.” The resulting four papers published in Food and Chemical Toxicology in January 2002 concluded that there was no evidence of substantial toxicity attributable to the cigarette additives studied.
Why Was This Study Done?
The use of cigarette additives is an important concern of the WHO, FDA, and similar national regulatory bodies around the world. Philip Morris has used the published Project MIX papers to assert the safety of individual additives and other cigarette companies have done similar studies that reached similar conclusions. In this study, the researchers used documents made public as a result of litigation against the tobacco industry to investigate the origins and design of Project MIX and to conduct their own analyses of the results to assess the reliability of the conclusions in the papers published in Food and Chemical Toxicology.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers systematically examined tobacco industry documents in the University of California San Francisco Legacy Tobacco Documents Library (then about 60 million pages made publicly available as a result of litigation) and used an iterative process of searching, analyzing, and refining to identify and review in detail 500 relevant documents.
The researchers found that in the original Project MIX analysis, the published papers obscured findings of toxicity by adjusting the data by total particulate matter (TPM) concentration. When the researchers conducted their own analysis by studying additives per cigarette (as was specified in the original Project MIX protocol), they found that 15 carcinogenic chemicals increased by 20%. The researchers also reported that, for unexplained reasons, Philip Morris deemphasized 19 of the 51 chemicals tested in the presentation of results, including nine that were substantially increased in smoke on a per cigarette basis of additive-added cigarettes, compared to smoke of control cigarettes.
The researchers explored the possibility that the failure of Project MIX to detect statistically significant changes in the toxicity of the smoke from cigarettes containing the additives was due to underpowered experiments rather than lack of a real effect by conducting their own statistical analysis. This analysis suggests that a better powered study would have detected a much broader range of biological effects associated with the additives than was identified in Philip Morris' published paper, suggesting that it substantially underestimated the toxic potential of cigarette smoke and additives.
The researchers also found that Food and Chemical Toxicology, the journal in which the four Project MIX papers were published, had an editor and 11 of its International Editorial Board with documented links to the tobacco industry. The scientist and leader of Project MIX Edward Carmines described the process of publication as “an inside job.”
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that the tobacco industry scientific research on the use of cigarette additives cannot be taken at face value: the results demonstrate that toxins in cigarette smoke increase substantially when additives are put in cigarettes. In addition, better powered studies would probably have detected a much broader range of adverse biological effects associated with the additives than identified to those identified in PM's published papers suggesting that the published papers substantially underestimate the toxic potential combination of cigarette smoke and additives.
Regulatory authorities, including the FDA and similar agencies elsewhere who are implementing WHO FCTC, should conduct their own independent analysis of Project MIX data, which, analyzed correctly, could provide a strong evidence base for the elimination of the use of the studied additives (including menthol) in cigarettes on public health grounds.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001145.
For PLoS Medicine's own policy on publishing papers sponsored by the tobacco industry see http://www.plosmedicine.org/static/policies.action#funders
The World Health Organization (WHO) provides information on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC)
The documents that the researchers reviewed in this paper can be found at the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library