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Cigarette Maker Manipulated Nicotine Tobacco industry documents, including some released in recent weeks, strongly suggest that one of the nation's largest cigarette producers, the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, altered nicotine delivery to smokers, apparently believing that doing so would increase the ''kick'' of its popular Winston brand and make it more competitive. All cigarette manufacturers, including R. J. Reynolds, have denied that they manipulate levels of nicotine, the substance in cigarettes that addicts smokers. And some of the techniques used by R. J. Reynolds, like the addition of ammonia compounds, have also been employed by producers like the Philip Morris Companies. But the latest R. J. Reynolds records, when added to previously disclosed documents, offer the most vivid case study yet of how one producer apparently decided in the 1970's to enhance nicotine delivery in an effort to make a brand more competitive. The documents show that R. J. Reynolds researchers noticed that Philip Morris had a higher level of free nicotine in its popular Marlboro brand. Soon after, the R. J. Reynolds researchers set out with the apparent intention of matching that quality in the company's Winston product. The question of whether cigarette makers deliberately manipulated nicotine is a central focus of the Justice Department's criminal investigation into possible fraud by tobacco producers. Of particular interest to Justice Department officials is whether producers used various techniques to alter nicotine availability even while nicotine levels as measured by Government cigarette tests were falling, said two people questioned by investigators. On Friday, a spokeswoman for R. J. Reynolds, a subsidiary of RJR Nabisco Holdings Corporation, said that nicotine levels were not a ''design characteristic'' in developing cigarettes. ''In fact, our research through the years has focused on reducing total 'tar' and nicotine yield,'' the spokeswoman said. The company has also said that its scientists had mistakenly associated free nicotine levels with higher cigarette sales, and that there was no evidence to indicate that the nicotine availability of any of the company's brands had been purposely increased to improve sales. Nicotine exists in two forms. One is its ''bound'' form that scientists believe is slowly absorbed by a smoker. In its other, or free, form, nicotine is more pharmacologically active and is more quickly absorbed, researchers believe. Government tests measure total nicotine, but not the proportions of the bound and free forms. That ratio is controlled by the acidity or alkalinity of cigarette smoke, as measured by its pH, said James Pankow, a researcher at the Oregon Graduate Institute in Portland. When compounds containing ammonia, an alkaline substance, are added to tobacco, pH rises and the ammonia acts to chemically convert the bound nicotine into its free form, Mr. Pankow said. In 1995, The Wall Street Journal disclosed a 1991 document from the Brown Williamson Tobacco Company that said that the cigarette maker and others like Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds used ammonia compounds. Roberts said Philip Morris had looked into whether ammonia affected how fast nicotine was absorbed into a smoker's respiratory system. She declined to elaborate. About 25 years ago, however, R. J. Reynolds officials believed that raising the pH and increasing the amount of free nicotine in tobacco smoke could increase the level of nicotine kick perceived by a smoker. A 1976 company document said, ''As the pH increases, the nicotine changes its chemical form so that it is more rapidly absorbed by the body and more quickly gives a 'kick' to the smoker.'' The company, which was then anxiously watching the growing popularity of its competitor's Marlboro brand, soon launched a major program to add ammonia compounds to its Winston products, the documents show. In fact, the documents show that R. J. Reynolds officials seized on a decision by Philip Morris, which in the mid-1960's began to use ammonia in its production process. By 1973, Marlboro sales were steadily rising, and officials of R. J. Reynolds, which was then losing its grip as the nation's leading cigarette maker, believed that the addition of ammonia was a key to the success of Marlboro, as well as a Brown Williamson product, Kool. They suspected that the use of ammonia yielded more free nicotine and increased the cigarette's punch, internal company documents show.

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