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Tobacco firms have failed to act on radioactivity in cigarettes. Here’s why.

by Oliver Childs | Analysis

24 May 2012

36 comments 36 comments

Radioactive smoke

Cigarettes contain radioactive polonium

It’s a plot worthy of Hollywood – a fatal radioactive poison, secret documents, suppressed information, and drugs.

But this isn’t fiction. This is the story of the tobacco industry’s knowledge, policy and inaction around radioactive material in cigarette smoke. And how it took a painstaking search through thousands of court-ordered documents to uncover exactly why tobacco firms are unwilling to remove this deadly radioactivity, despite knowing how for more than 30 years.

By their own admission, “creating doubt about the health charge without actually denying it” is a strategy the tobacco industry has used effectively for decades, using smoke and mirrors to deflect mounting evidence of the deadly harm caused by their products.

As politicians and the public debate the merits of putting cigarettes in plain packaging to deter new young smokers, this particular story should serve as a timely reminder of how Big Tobacco operates when faced with the possibility of falling profits.

Setting the scene: radioactivity and cancer

But before delving into the main plot of this real life drama, it’s worth taking a step back to understand some of the basics about radioactivity and cancer.

For many, the word ‘radioactive’ is likely to conjure up emotive images of nuclear power plant catastrophes and mushroom clouds. But it’s not all the stuff of disaster movies. Low-level background radiation is constantly present in the natural environment, both from cosmic rays from outer space and from radioactive material found throughout nature – in the soil we tread on, the water we drink, and the air we breathe.

Low levels of radiation are safe. Even some of the essential elements that make up our own bodies – such as potassium and carbon – have radioactive versions, which add to our background radiation dose.

But higher, concentrated doses of radiation can be dangerous. And long-term exposure to above-normal levels of radiation can be deadly. It’s no coincidence that Marie Curie – who coined the phrase ‘radioactivity’ – died from aplastic anaemia, a disease of the bone marrow that’s now known to be linked to radiation poisoning. She did much of her work in a shed with absolutely no safety measures, and she even carried radioactive material around in her pockets.

One of the earliest links between radioactivity and cancer was made in a small US town called Orange in the 1920s. Women working in a watch factory in the New Jersey town painted the dials with glow-in-the-dark radioactive paint. They frequently licked the tips of the brushes, and inadvertently took in the radioactive element in the paint – radium. Many of these women later developed cancer of the jawbone or mouth, and the use of the deadly radioactive paint was stopped.

Puffing on polonium

Tobacco plant

Tobacco plants absorb radioactive material

Step forward 40 years from the time of these ‘radium girls’ to the swinging sixties – a time when more than 50 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women in the UK smoked and tobacco advertising was still seen on TV.

In 1964, two scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health published a landmark study that revealed that a radioactive element called polonium in cigarettes could be “significant” in the development of lung cancer.

But how does this radioactive chemical get into tobacco in the first place?

There are two main routes. Some tobacco plants are grown using fertilisers that contain apatite, a group of minerals that becomes contaminated with radioactive lead phosphate, the ‘parent’ of polonium. The plants absorb this radioactivity from the fertiliser.

Tobacco plants also absorb tiny dust particles from the air that are loaded with small amounts of radioactive material, including polonium and other radioactive elements that eventually decay into it. These radioactive dust particles clump onto the sticky, hair-like projections (called trichomes) that thickly cover both sides of tobacco leaves.

Cigarettes deliver dangerously concentrated doses of radioactivity directly into the lungs. When smokers inhale, the radioactive particles damage lung tissue, creating ‘hot spots’ of damage.

Other chemicals in cigarette smoke damage the lung’s cleaning systems, which would normally get rid of gunk in our airways. So the particles build up over time. These localised build-ups lead to far greater and longer exposures to radiation than people would usually get from natural sources.

Autopsies of smokers have shown that cancer often develops where these polonium-induced hot spots of damage occur.

The evidence for the cancer-causing effects of radioactive polonium in tobacco smoke is strong. But instead of addressing these findings in public, the tobacco industry turned to denial and cover-ups.

A deadly cover-up

Take another step forward to the 1990s, when over half a century’s worth of internal tobacco company documents began to be posted online after a 1998 US court order.

Academics have spent years trawling through these 13 million documents to learn about the industry’s scientific research and policy around tobacco. A few years ago we we wrote about a report showing the tobacco industry knew about the danger of polonium in cigarette smoke for over 40 years, but suppressed publication of their research to avoid heightening the public’s awareness of the issue.

This and other studies also found that the industry adamantly resisted efforts to remove polonium from tobacco leaves, and repressed publications about radioactivity in tobacco smoke. Polonium might be only one of many cancer-causing substances in tobacco, but why on earth would the tobacco industry resist the chance to remove one of the deadly poisons in their product?

Professor Hrayr Karagueuzian and colleagues at the University of California wanted to find out, and their recent study seems to have the answer.

The plot thickens

Hrayr Karagueuzian

Hrayr Karaguezian studied previously secret documents

Professor Karagueuzian’s team looked in detail at previously unanalysed documents to find out why an industry that makes more than Coca Cola, McDonald’s and Microsoft combined – around £3,500 for every person killed by smoking – is reticent to make its product less deadly.

They were surprised by what they found.

First, the industry was aware of the presence of higher than background levels of radioactivity in tobacco five years before the wider scientific community had published any research on the topic. In 1959, a Canadian health official – by a quirk of fate called Mr Ash – wrote to tobacco company Philip Morris to ask whether tobacco should be regulated as a “radioactive substance”, and suggested a way to remove up to a third of the radioactive dose from cigarettes.

But this letter was “summarily dismissed” by the tobacco company, according to Professor Karagueuzian.

Second, in the 1960s the industry went on to build an in-depth knowledge about the effects of polonium on smokers. They not only knew of potential “cancerous growth” in the lungs of regular smokers, but even accurately calculated how much radiation a long-term smoker would take in.

And despite knowing how to remove the deadly radioactivity for several decades, the industry was “unshakable and adamant with respect to its policy of silence, denial, obfuscation, and rebuttal to any and all from of news about tobacco radioactivity”.

The reason? Professor Karagueuzian is convinced profit underpinned this silence and denial.

The final twist: nicotine free-basing

Over 30 years ago, scientists discovered that a process called “acid washing” removes almost all of the polonium from tobacco. But the tobacco industry refused to use it to remove the radioactive material from their products.

Officially, they said the process would cost too much and might have a negative impact on tobacco farmers and on the environment. Karagueuzian says accepting this logic is “tantamount to accepting that inhalation of radionuclides by smokers is the safest way to dispose of excess tobacco radiation”.

The newly studied documents reveal a potentially more plausible reason why the industry avoided acid washing – the process alters the nicotine in tobacco leaves and makes it less able to deliver the instant nicotine rush smokers craved.

The chemical ammonia is added during the processing of tobacco leaves, which ensures most of the nicotine in cigarettes is in a ‘free base’ form that is more quickly and easily delivered to the brain. Crucially, the acid wash process counteracts this ‘free-basing’ effect. It adds a positive charge to nicotine molecules, which are then delivered more slowly to the brain, depriving smokers of the full effect of the drug.

The term free-basing has more commonly been associated with cocaine addiction, where users seeking a more intense effect from the drug convert it from its normal form to its more intense free-base form.

Free-basing is about giving addicts a drug ‘kick’ as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s not hard to imagine why an industry that relies on addicts being hooked on their deadly products would resist a process that reduces the effect of their key drug.

Smoking kills – so we need to stop people starting

Let’s be crystal clear: polonium isn’t the only killer in tobacco. There are more than 70 cancer-causing chemicals – including arsenic and formaldehyde – and hundreds of other poisons in a single cigarette.

Tobacco will kill one billion people in the 21st century if trends continue, one sixth of the current world population. That’s one person dying every six seconds. And those incomprehensible numbers don’t speak of the countless family members and friends who have to cope watching their loved one die, and then carry on with life after they have gone.

Despite some legislative successes in the UK aimed at reducing the number of smokers, tobacco is clearly still a colossal health problem.

Girl looking at plain pack

Give children one less reason to start smoking

The best protection from tobacco is not to smoke it in the first place. And if we’re to beat cancer, then stopping as many new smokers entering the market as possible is clearly a route we must follow, and campaigning for plain packaging of cigarettes could help. Although it won’t stop current smokers, it will help give millions of kids one less reason to start. Quite simply, it will help to save lives.

But it will also damage tobacco industry profits. The story of polonium highlights the twists and turns made by an industry that puts profits above health, and continues to push a product that kills half of all its long-term users.

Make a stand

This story should serve as a stark reminder to those who hear the tobacco industry’s counter arguments about the effects of plain packaging of their product.

Perhaps the following quote will help to explain not just why removing radioactivity has been refused by the tobacco industry, but also more broadly why they resist efforts to make their product less appealing:

“Tobacco products, uniquely, contain and deliver nicotine, a potent drug with a variety of physiological effects… if we meekly accept allegations of our critics and move toward reduction or elimination of nicotine from our products, then we shall eventually liquidate our business. If we intend to remain in business and our business is the manufacturer and sale of dosage forms of nicotine, then at some point we must make a stand.” – Claude E Teague Jr, Assistant Director of Research at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, 1972

Our business is beating cancer. So we must make the strongest stand possible against the industry that is responsible for millions of deaths from this disease.

If you want to join us, please sign our petition.

Reference

Karagueuzian, H., White, C., Sayre, J., & Norman, A. (2011). Cigarette Smoke Radioactivity and Lung Cancer Risk Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 14 (1), 79-90 DOI: 10.1093/ntr/ntr145


    Comments

  • John Smith
    21 November 2012

    But how does this radioactive chemical get into tobacco in the first place?

    And addition to the two you mentioned.

    The levels of Radon gas where the tobacco is grown

    This is a primary source of environmental polonium.

  • Nick Greaves
    28 May 2012

    I am disgusted by the way that the tobacco industry refuses to remove polonium from their products especially as they have known how to do so for so long. Although I know that a great many poeple will be devastated by the fall of such a lareg industry, I can’t help suggesting that such inhumane behaviour should be allowed to go on. I will never smoke.

  • Serena Banfield
    28 May 2012

    Thank you for such an interesting and eye opening article, this has supported my dislike of smoking. All smokers out there should read this and take note! People considering smoking should think twice after reading this, I was very shocked that cigarettes contain radiactive material. I’m sure I wont be smoking any time soon.

  • Phoebe Hyde
    27 May 2012

    I think this is very interesting and impacting. It is also good because of the current TV advert about how harmful cigarette smoke is invisible so adults don’t realise their kids are inhaling it, therefore adults reading this will realise that not only is it harming their children but it is also radioactive. Also I agree with the plain packaging idea – the cigarette industry in manipulative and know that it intices those who are easily swayed.

  • Jake Childerley
    27 May 2012

    Found this an eye-opening article, exposing the realities of the dangerous effects of smoking, and how tobacco companies really couldn’t care less for the health of their customers. Really hope this horrifying fact is brought into the light of mainstream media, so to put a stop to it. Again another sickening example of the tobacco industry feeding on the suffering of their ignorant, addicted customers.

  • Nicola Jefferies
    27 May 2012

    Before I read this article I thought smoking was disgusting and this is reinforcing that fact. The fact that the vast majorite of smokers fo not know about this is wrong as they are ignorant to what they are putting themselves at risk to.

  • Joe Boultbee
    27 May 2012

    I found this a fascinating article to read. It just shows what large industries like to hide. It’s great it has been found out not only to keep away people from cigarettes but also so future action can be taken to prevent radioactive poisioning from cigarettes!

  • Mr B J Mann
    27 May 2012

    Sorry, but what has trawling through 30 years worth and thousands of pages of documents told us?

    Low levels of radiation are safe. Even some of the essential elements that make up our own bodies – such as potassium and carbon – have radioactive versions, which add to our background radiation dose.

    That “higher, concentrated doses of radiation CAN be dangerous.”

    “And long-term exposure to above-normal levels of radiation CAN be deadly.”

    But what are those levels and what are the levels of Polonium?

    “a landmark study that revealed that a radioactive element called polonium in cigarettes COULD be “significant” in the development of lung cancer”.

    As researchers have made “a painstaking search through thousands of court-ordered documents” and “Academics have spent years trawling through these 13 million documents” surely you could give us a clue as to whether the Polonium is 1000 times the background level, 100 times, 50, 10, 5, 1.05? And whether the danger level is 5 times the background level, 500 times, or 500,000 times or 5 million. And whether the safety factor they’ve used is 500,000, or 1,000,000!

  • reply
    Andrew Harmsworth
    28 May 2012

    It would be good to have some figures on activity levels, I agree, but your suggestion that we can ignore the radioactivity perhaps ignores the location and radiation type. Any additional alpha source directly inside the lungs cannot be good for you – at all. It only takes one mutation of one cell to become cancerous, surely? And that could be the result of one alpha particle from one polonium-210 radionuclide. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  • Martin Cooper
    26 May 2012

    Surely, the logical conclusion to this article is that we question why radiation is still used in cancer treatment? If this is so dangerous to our health, why are we choosing to expose patients to it as a cure? Either it is life threatening or not. It’s time we take a new look at the way we treat cancer & stop giving people death sentences as a way to extend their lives in poor health by a few months or few years.

  • reply
    Andrew Harmsworth
    26 May 2012

    Martin, as someone who underwent extensive, daily radiotherapy for a liposarcoma last year, the benefits of the treatment far outweigh the negative impacts (loss of hair, skin burn, etc.) If I had not had the radiotherapy, there is a far higher chance of cancer cells being left behind – ALIVE – in my leg. These would grow a new tumour and put me in a far worse situation. So it’s about weighing up the benefits to patients and, I believe, the research shows that radiotherapy has better outcomes than chemotherapy, but not all cancers are the same of course, so we must be cautious to generalise. Chemo for liposarcoma is generally not effective, so I had little choise. I don’t think many experts would agree with you that radiotherapy is “giving people death sentences” – in a large number of cases it will lead to complete cures and not just an extension to life. Obviously this is never guaranteed and close monitoring for years is necessary – inconvenient, for sure.

    On the other hand, smoking cigarettes that contain cancer-causing chemicals and radioactive nuclides – such as polonium – is so obviously negative and perhaps is a death sentence. Albeit normally a relatively slow one.

  • Tierney Cowell
    25 May 2012

    An interesting, yet shocking article, sure to put anyone off smoking for life! I think it is both immoral and inhumane to allow cancer-inducing substances to be unnecessarily inhaled by the public, and not even allowing them to know what they are smoking is an utter disgrace. Radiation containing substances should be removed from cigarettes immediately no matter what the effect on business. Lives are more important than money. I fully support the idea to change cigarette packaging. If packets were unrecognisable as cigarettes, the ‘cool factor’ of possessing them could be stopped; this would be very beneficial to teen smokers. This article has really opened my eyes to the disgusting tobacco industry and I think that everyone has the right to this information.

  • Anna Ewbank
    25 May 2012

    I agree with all of the comments above. Most young teenagers/adults smoke for the look. Polonium should be taken out of cigarettes and the world should know the real harm that cigarettes can cause.

  • Caroline Jarman
    25 May 2012

    This is a very interesting article which has opened my eyes to the tobacco industry. I think it is totally outrageous that despite being aware their products contained deadly radioactive chemicals in them, the industry chose not to remove them for fear of harming their buisness. Althought this information is life saving, they purposely kept it from the public. I fully support the idea to make cigarette packaging plain in order to discourage youths from smoking, which would also save numerous lives. We must continue to campain about the effects of smoking and the tobacco industry.

  • Emily King
    25 May 2012

    An extremely interesting article, highlighting a completely immoral industry. It’s shocking how little people are actually aware of the polonium present in the cigarettes, and the consequences of it. I for one had no idea! I also agree that in order to deter younger people from the temptation to start smoking, cigarette packaging should be plain and unattractive. The public should be made aware of this, seeing as the radiation has already taken so many lives. I think cigarette companies should remove the radioactive substance from cigarettes, because it is corrupt to prioritise the industry’s ‘profits above health’.

  • Grygoriy Bon
    25 May 2012

    This article is another piece of evidence that smoking is bad. It doesn’t just prove the point that smoking is wrong but also it shows readers the other side of negative consequences that smoking can lead to!
    Amazing! Many thanks to the writer!

  • Izzy Alexander
    25 May 2012

    I found this article a very interesting read. I strongly feel that polonium should be removed from the cigarettes and that if the nicotine effect is removed that is a good thing. It is shocking that this has been hidden for so long. As a teenager I think a change in packaging would encourage less young people to smoke. This article has confirmed my anti-smoking view and I am sure many others feel the same way. I am disgusted that the tobacco industry left the polonium in the cigarettes and allowed it to claim many lives, this awful truth should not remain unheard of.

  • Toby Barnett
    25 May 2012

    Keep up the good work Cancer Research UK! Hopefully some of this shocking news will come to light in mainstream media and will help to change attitudes to smoking, stopping the new generations from taking up this suicidal past-time.

  • Seb Lawson
    25 May 2012

    I was a bit brief on my last comment, and I would like to say I completely agree with what the Doc, whoever he is, and wholeheartedly believe smoking is a disgrace. The fact that they would put something even more harmful than the tobacco itself in a cigarette is an absolute disgrace. I hope more people read this and begin to put their foot down against smoking. I believe what has happened in Australia is a starting point and one we must build upon. together.

  • The Doc
    25 May 2012

    As a doctor there is nothing more important than health. This article makes people more aware of the health issues surrounding smoking. That is a good thing.

  • Katie Monks
    25 May 2012

    This was an interesting article, as well as being extremely shocking. I wondered: How do so few people know about something so serious? This was the first time I had read about radioactivity in cigarettes and I was exasperated to find out that the Big Tobacco industry have been hiding this for so many years. Something must be done to stop this industry from supplying the public with drugs that have such disastrous effects and take so many lives, and I am all for the industry being shut down. Children of today must be given ‘one less reason to smoke’ and so packaging must be dull and plain, the word of cigarette’s deadly effects should be spread, and charities like Cancer Research UK should (and must) continue campaigning.

  • Leo Barrett
    25 May 2012

    Sorry for the awful english :P

  • Will Dawson
    25 May 2012

    I agree with Mr. Diakos, if cigarette packets are blank or a boring colour then less people will want to smoke. A lot of young adults think smoking is stylish, however if you take away that stylish element the number of young people starting smoking will decrease. Also, if you tell people about the radiation risk I think, again, the number of young people starting smoking would go down. Finally, Tom, you mean ‘want’ not ‘wont’. Grammar.

  • James Leggoe
    25 May 2012

    This blog has added to the abysmal views I have on smoking. I can, however, see where people that smoke get there tendancies from as you can get an adiction and that can be hard to break as your body craves for more of the drug. although who ever the person Is I have lost some respect for as I believe that smoking is an irresponsible habit and the concequences that they obtain should not be as much of a shock to the person as they have brought the tumour on themselves. My views on smoking are harsh as two of my grandparents have died from cancer of the lungs, my views of smoking as a teenager or even a child are that at such a young age such alpha radiation that is emited into your body through polonium is very harmfull to your cells especially at such a young age as you are still growing and radioactive exposure to alpha radiation every day if that person smokes is lethal. So I beleive that cigarette companies should withdraw the radioactive substance although they would disagree because some consumers may like the substance as it is adictive to some people however not knowing the harmful substance within the cigarette. I also think that if people knew the harmful substances in the cigarette the number of people taking the drug would decrease. This is a very intresting article and I have learned about the radioactive substance within the drug.

  • Jack Folland
    25 May 2012

    A fascinating read which has brought to light the manipulating powers that the tobacco industry has. It is also astonishing how they (tobacco industry) have been able to keep adding the polonium when they know the dangerous/deadly effects it has! It is incredible the amount of research that has been done for this article it made it very interesting and enjoyable for a wide range of people. It has drastically made me, and I’m sure lots of others, drastically change our view on smoking. The statistics shown are shocking and alone were enough to change my view. Thank you for collating this information it has been a very inciting read!

  • Hannah Ritchie
    25 May 2012

    *disgusting
    ..awkward spelling mistakeeee /:

  • Ottilie Black
    25 May 2012

    I found this really interesting and can’t believe that the tobacco industry have been allowed to get away with this for so long! It is completely immoral to keep something so important and life threatening from the public! The idea about changing packaging is also really good, as we don’t want anymore people to pick up smoking! I was also interested to find how the polonium actually got into the nicotine plants!!

  • Hannah Ritchie
    25 May 2012

    I found this very interesting and believe that it is immoral and disguating for the tobacco industry to keep this information away from the public.

  • Seb Lawson
    25 May 2012

    Smoking is disgusting! The power of words! What a great article, If important and interesting were a blog this would be it.

  • Rory Milbank
    25 May 2012

    This is amazing!!!!! This shows that science is truly the poetry of reality!!!

  • Alexei Zouev
    25 May 2012

    I found this interesting. It portrays yet another reason why smoking is unnessecary and harmful to the human body. The fact that tobacco companies do not disclose this is a putrid fact. I see the reasoning in their actions, although I do not agree with them, however those companies do not truly care about human life, rather they care about their profits. Hopefully this article will allow the world to understand that smoking is even more detrimental than they know it to be, and will start a shortage of demand for cigarettes, putting the tobacco companies in jeopardy.

  • Tom Mead
    25 May 2012

    Precsise and to the point.

  • Leo Barrett
    25 May 2012

    An interestering piece that has just boosted my disgusted views on smoking. I feel that the idea that australia have of making ciggarette packets brownj and dull, i feel that this is a great idea becuase i feel that as a teenager the different varieties attract me. I feel this piece should be advertised amongst all children then i feel if people dont take it up at an early age they will not take up smoking.

  • Thomas Diakos
    25 May 2012

    This was a very interesting read and I do not think that I will ever smoke after what I have just read. I think that it is correct what you people are trying to do and fully agree that polonium should be taken out of the cigarettes altogether even if the nicotine effect gets ruined. I also think that by making all cigarette packages dull and grey not as many children will wont to smoke.

  • Oliver Childs
    25 May 2012

    Thanks for spotting that Andrew – I have corrected the typo.

  • Andrew Harmsworth
    25 May 2012

    Typo – polounium isn’t the only killer in tobacco

    “polonium”.

    Fascinating article!

  • carole frost
    24 May 2012

    i am all for a campaign for future children to be aware that deadly poisons in cigarettes kill more than 5,ooo people around the world every second where is the revenue of peoples lives going.the industry should be closed down and revenue saught elsewhere.

  • carole frost
    24 May 2012

    the tobacco industry should be closed down altogether it has caused so many deaths over the years.they should be sued for using dangerous chemicals unknown or known to man it would not cost the health department billions of poundstrying to warn people of the dangers of tobacco.

    Comments

  • John Smith
    21 November 2012

    But how does this radioactive chemical get into tobacco in the first place?

    And addition to the two you mentioned.

    The levels of Radon gas where the tobacco is grown

    This is a primary source of environmental polonium.

  • Nick Greaves
    28 May 2012

    I am disgusted by the way that the tobacco industry refuses to remove polonium from their products especially as they have known how to do so for so long. Although I know that a great many poeple will be devastated by the fall of such a lareg industry, I can’t help suggesting that such inhumane behaviour should be allowed to go on. I will never smoke.

  • Serena Banfield
    28 May 2012

    Thank you for such an interesting and eye opening article, this has supported my dislike of smoking. All smokers out there should read this and take note! People considering smoking should think twice after reading this, I was very shocked that cigarettes contain radiactive material. I’m sure I wont be smoking any time soon.

  • Phoebe Hyde
    27 May 2012

    I think this is very interesting and impacting. It is also good because of the current TV advert about how harmful cigarette smoke is invisible so adults don’t realise their kids are inhaling it, therefore adults reading this will realise that not only is it harming their children but it is also radioactive. Also I agree with the plain packaging idea – the cigarette industry in manipulative and know that it intices those who are easily swayed.

  • Jake Childerley
    27 May 2012

    Found this an eye-opening article, exposing the realities of the dangerous effects of smoking, and how tobacco companies really couldn’t care less for the health of their customers. Really hope this horrifying fact is brought into the light of mainstream media, so to put a stop to it. Again another sickening example of the tobacco industry feeding on the suffering of their ignorant, addicted customers.

  • Nicola Jefferies
    27 May 2012

    Before I read this article I thought smoking was disgusting and this is reinforcing that fact. The fact that the vast majorite of smokers fo not know about this is wrong as they are ignorant to what they are putting themselves at risk to.

  • Joe Boultbee
    27 May 2012

    I found this a fascinating article to read. It just shows what large industries like to hide. It’s great it has been found out not only to keep away people from cigarettes but also so future action can be taken to prevent radioactive poisioning from cigarettes!

  • Mr B J Mann
    27 May 2012

    Sorry, but what has trawling through 30 years worth and thousands of pages of documents told us?

    Low levels of radiation are safe. Even some of the essential elements that make up our own bodies – such as potassium and carbon – have radioactive versions, which add to our background radiation dose.

    That “higher, concentrated doses of radiation CAN be dangerous.”

    “And long-term exposure to above-normal levels of radiation CAN be deadly.”

    But what are those levels and what are the levels of Polonium?

    “a landmark study that revealed that a radioactive element called polonium in cigarettes COULD be “significant” in the development of lung cancer”.

    As researchers have made “a painstaking search through thousands of court-ordered documents” and “Academics have spent years trawling through these 13 million documents” surely you could give us a clue as to whether the Polonium is 1000 times the background level, 100 times, 50, 10, 5, 1.05? And whether the danger level is 5 times the background level, 500 times, or 500,000 times or 5 million. And whether the safety factor they’ve used is 500,000, or 1,000,000!

  • reply
    Andrew Harmsworth
    28 May 2012

    It would be good to have some figures on activity levels, I agree, but your suggestion that we can ignore the radioactivity perhaps ignores the location and radiation type. Any additional alpha source directly inside the lungs cannot be good for you – at all. It only takes one mutation of one cell to become cancerous, surely? And that could be the result of one alpha particle from one polonium-210 radionuclide. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  • Martin Cooper
    26 May 2012

    Surely, the logical conclusion to this article is that we question why radiation is still used in cancer treatment? If this is so dangerous to our health, why are we choosing to expose patients to it as a cure? Either it is life threatening or not. It’s time we take a new look at the way we treat cancer & stop giving people death sentences as a way to extend their lives in poor health by a few months or few years.

  • reply
    Andrew Harmsworth
    26 May 2012

    Martin, as someone who underwent extensive, daily radiotherapy for a liposarcoma last year, the benefits of the treatment far outweigh the negative impacts (loss of hair, skin burn, etc.) If I had not had the radiotherapy, there is a far higher chance of cancer cells being left behind – ALIVE – in my leg. These would grow a new tumour and put me in a far worse situation. So it’s about weighing up the benefits to patients and, I believe, the research shows that radiotherapy has better outcomes than chemotherapy, but not all cancers are the same of course, so we must be cautious to generalise. Chemo for liposarcoma is generally not effective, so I had little choise. I don’t think many experts would agree with you that radiotherapy is “giving people death sentences” – in a large number of cases it will lead to complete cures and not just an extension to life. Obviously this is never guaranteed and close monitoring for years is necessary – inconvenient, for sure.

    On the other hand, smoking cigarettes that contain cancer-causing chemicals and radioactive nuclides – such as polonium – is so obviously negative and perhaps is a death sentence. Albeit normally a relatively slow one.

  • Tierney Cowell
    25 May 2012

    An interesting, yet shocking article, sure to put anyone off smoking for life! I think it is both immoral and inhumane to allow cancer-inducing substances to be unnecessarily inhaled by the public, and not even allowing them to know what they are smoking is an utter disgrace. Radiation containing substances should be removed from cigarettes immediately no matter what the effect on business. Lives are more important than money. I fully support the idea to change cigarette packaging. If packets were unrecognisable as cigarettes, the ‘cool factor’ of possessing them could be stopped; this would be very beneficial to teen smokers. This article has really opened my eyes to the disgusting tobacco industry and I think that everyone has the right to this information.

  • Anna Ewbank
    25 May 2012

    I agree with all of the comments above. Most young teenagers/adults smoke for the look. Polonium should be taken out of cigarettes and the world should know the real harm that cigarettes can cause.

  • Caroline Jarman
    25 May 2012

    This is a very interesting article which has opened my eyes to the tobacco industry. I think it is totally outrageous that despite being aware their products contained deadly radioactive chemicals in them, the industry chose not to remove them for fear of harming their buisness. Althought this information is life saving, they purposely kept it from the public. I fully support the idea to make cigarette packaging plain in order to discourage youths from smoking, which would also save numerous lives. We must continue to campain about the effects of smoking and the tobacco industry.

  • Emily King
    25 May 2012

    An extremely interesting article, highlighting a completely immoral industry. It’s shocking how little people are actually aware of the polonium present in the cigarettes, and the consequences of it. I for one had no idea! I also agree that in order to deter younger people from the temptation to start smoking, cigarette packaging should be plain and unattractive. The public should be made aware of this, seeing as the radiation has already taken so many lives. I think cigarette companies should remove the radioactive substance from cigarettes, because it is corrupt to prioritise the industry’s ‘profits above health’.

  • Grygoriy Bon
    25 May 2012

    This article is another piece of evidence that smoking is bad. It doesn’t just prove the point that smoking is wrong but also it shows readers the other side of negative consequences that smoking can lead to!
    Amazing! Many thanks to the writer!

  • Izzy Alexander
    25 May 2012

    I found this article a very interesting read. I strongly feel that polonium should be removed from the cigarettes and that if the nicotine effect is removed that is a good thing. It is shocking that this has been hidden for so long. As a teenager I think a change in packaging would encourage less young people to smoke. This article has confirmed my anti-smoking view and I am sure many others feel the same way. I am disgusted that the tobacco industry left the polonium in the cigarettes and allowed it to claim many lives, this awful truth should not remain unheard of.

  • Toby Barnett
    25 May 2012

    Keep up the good work Cancer Research UK! Hopefully some of this shocking news will come to light in mainstream media and will help to change attitudes to smoking, stopping the new generations from taking up this suicidal past-time.

  • Seb Lawson
    25 May 2012

    I was a bit brief on my last comment, and I would like to say I completely agree with what the Doc, whoever he is, and wholeheartedly believe smoking is a disgrace. The fact that they would put something even more harmful than the tobacco itself in a cigarette is an absolute disgrace. I hope more people read this and begin to put their foot down against smoking. I believe what has happened in Australia is a starting point and one we must build upon. together.

  • The Doc
    25 May 2012

    As a doctor there is nothing more important than health. This article makes people more aware of the health issues surrounding smoking. That is a good thing.

  • Katie Monks
    25 May 2012

    This was an interesting article, as well as being extremely shocking. I wondered: How do so few people know about something so serious? This was the first time I had read about radioactivity in cigarettes and I was exasperated to find out that the Big Tobacco industry have been hiding this for so many years. Something must be done to stop this industry from supplying the public with drugs that have such disastrous effects and take so many lives, and I am all for the industry being shut down. Children of today must be given ‘one less reason to smoke’ and so packaging must be dull and plain, the word of cigarette’s deadly effects should be spread, and charities like Cancer Research UK should (and must) continue campaigning.

  • Leo Barrett
    25 May 2012

    Sorry for the awful english :P

  • Will Dawson
    25 May 2012

    I agree with Mr. Diakos, if cigarette packets are blank or a boring colour then less people will want to smoke. A lot of young adults think smoking is stylish, however if you take away that stylish element the number of young people starting smoking will decrease. Also, if you tell people about the radiation risk I think, again, the number of young people starting smoking would go down. Finally, Tom, you mean ‘want’ not ‘wont’. Grammar.

  • James Leggoe
    25 May 2012

    This blog has added to the abysmal views I have on smoking. I can, however, see where people that smoke get there tendancies from as you can get an adiction and that can be hard to break as your body craves for more of the drug. although who ever the person Is I have lost some respect for as I believe that smoking is an irresponsible habit and the concequences that they obtain should not be as much of a shock to the person as they have brought the tumour on themselves. My views on smoking are harsh as two of my grandparents have died from cancer of the lungs, my views of smoking as a teenager or even a child are that at such a young age such alpha radiation that is emited into your body through polonium is very harmfull to your cells especially at such a young age as you are still growing and radioactive exposure to alpha radiation every day if that person smokes is lethal. So I beleive that cigarette companies should withdraw the radioactive substance although they would disagree because some consumers may like the substance as it is adictive to some people however not knowing the harmful substance within the cigarette. I also think that if people knew the harmful substances in the cigarette the number of people taking the drug would decrease. This is a very intresting article and I have learned about the radioactive substance within the drug.

  • Jack Folland
    25 May 2012

    A fascinating read which has brought to light the manipulating powers that the tobacco industry has. It is also astonishing how they (tobacco industry) have been able to keep adding the polonium when they know the dangerous/deadly effects it has! It is incredible the amount of research that has been done for this article it made it very interesting and enjoyable for a wide range of people. It has drastically made me, and I’m sure lots of others, drastically change our view on smoking. The statistics shown are shocking and alone were enough to change my view. Thank you for collating this information it has been a very inciting read!

  • Hannah Ritchie
    25 May 2012

    *disgusting
    ..awkward spelling mistakeeee /:

  • Ottilie Black
    25 May 2012

    I found this really interesting and can’t believe that the tobacco industry have been allowed to get away with this for so long! It is completely immoral to keep something so important and life threatening from the public! The idea about changing packaging is also really good, as we don’t want anymore people to pick up smoking! I was also interested to find how the polonium actually got into the nicotine plants!!

  • Hannah Ritchie
    25 May 2012

    I found this very interesting and believe that it is immoral and disguating for the tobacco industry to keep this information away from the public.

  • Seb Lawson
    25 May 2012

    Smoking is disgusting! The power of words! What a great article, If important and interesting were a blog this would be it.

  • Rory Milbank
    25 May 2012

    This is amazing!!!!! This shows that science is truly the poetry of reality!!!

  • Alexei Zouev
    25 May 2012

    I found this interesting. It portrays yet another reason why smoking is unnessecary and harmful to the human body. The fact that tobacco companies do not disclose this is a putrid fact. I see the reasoning in their actions, although I do not agree with them, however those companies do not truly care about human life, rather they care about their profits. Hopefully this article will allow the world to understand that smoking is even more detrimental than they know it to be, and will start a shortage of demand for cigarettes, putting the tobacco companies in jeopardy.

  • Tom Mead
    25 May 2012

    Precsise and to the point.

  • Leo Barrett
    25 May 2012

    An interestering piece that has just boosted my disgusted views on smoking. I feel that the idea that australia have of making ciggarette packets brownj and dull, i feel that this is a great idea becuase i feel that as a teenager the different varieties attract me. I feel this piece should be advertised amongst all children then i feel if people dont take it up at an early age they will not take up smoking.

  • Thomas Diakos
    25 May 2012

    This was a very interesting read and I do not think that I will ever smoke after what I have just read. I think that it is correct what you people are trying to do and fully agree that polonium should be taken out of the cigarettes altogether even if the nicotine effect gets ruined. I also think that by making all cigarette packages dull and grey not as many children will wont to smoke.

  • Oliver Childs
    25 May 2012

    Thanks for spotting that Andrew – I have corrected the typo.

  • Andrew Harmsworth
    25 May 2012

    Typo – polounium isn’t the only killer in tobacco

    “polonium”.

    Fascinating article!

  • carole frost
    24 May 2012

    i am all for a campaign for future children to be aware that deadly poisons in cigarettes kill more than 5,ooo people around the world every second where is the revenue of peoples lives going.the industry should be closed down and revenue saught elsewhere.

  • carole frost
    24 May 2012

    the tobacco industry should be closed down altogether it has caused so many deaths over the years.they should be sued for using dangerous chemicals unknown or known to man it would not cost the health department billions of poundstrying to warn people of the dangers of tobacco.