Boston — American cigarettemakers are trying to make smoking socially acceptable again. This week R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company announced it will test-market a ``smokeless'' cigarette next year. In so doing, the nation's second-largest tobacco company launched an assault on an old problem - health concerns - and on a new one, the vocal and increasingly powerful antismoking movement.
Whether the new development will make smoking safer - either for smokers or for nearby breathers - is hotly disputed, with critics saying it may actually be more dangerous. The answer won't be known until scientists are able to test the cigarette, which is likely to be copied by other major cigarettemakers.
Whether the new cigarette becomes socially acceptable hinges in part on the health question, but also on whether anyone will buy it. If the product becomes popular and indeed emits virtually no smoke, it may puncture some arguments of the antismoking lobby.
Already major cities like New York have enacted laws banning smoking from public buildings and restaurants. Today, two bills are being introduced in Congress that would allow either the Food and Drug Administration or the Consumer Product Safety Commission to regulate tobacco. Tobacco products are not now regulated.
According to R.J. Reynolds, a subsidiary of RJR Nabisco, the new cigarette burns at a higher temperature than an ordinary cigarette. A carbon element in the tip burns, heating up the air as it passes through the tobacco and a flavor capsule without burning the tobacco - thus eliminating some dangerous combustion byproducts like tar. It also produces no ash, odor, or virtually any smoke from the lighted end after the first few puffs, the company asserts.
``From a health standpoint it has some significant potential,'' says Layten Davis, director of the University of Kentucky's Tobacco and Health Research Institute, whose organization aims to make tobacco products safer.
Critics, however, say the smokeless cigarette may be as dangerous as the present version, or even more so. ``We know for certain the cigarette produces carbon monoxide and nicotine,'' says Michele Kling, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association. Carbon monoxide has been linked by doctors to heart attack, and it is nicotine that makes cigarettes addictive.
And there is the question of other, potentially harmful chemicals being inhaled, says Gregory Connolly, who chaired a World Health Organization committee on smokeless tobacco. ``Who knows what additives are in this product?'' he says.
Still, the move by Reynolds is considered a watershed. ``It is the beginning of a number of technological innovations'' to make smoking safer and more socially acceptable, says Emanuel Goldman, a tobacco analyst at Montgomery Securities. The tobacco industry does not accept a link between smoking and diseases like lung cancer, so Reynolds is not touting a safer cigarette.
Reynolds, however, is stressing the social benefits. ``This will clearly be well received by the people who object to sidestream smoke,'' says Reynolds spokeswoman Betsy Annese. Sidestream smoke is a smoker's exhalation or gases from the cigarette itself.
In some ways, social acceptability has become thornier than the health issue for the tobacco industry, and certainly more of a problem thus far than health-related product liability suits. Tobacco companies have not lost any so far.
Over the last few years, cigarettemakers - still in one of the most profitable businesses in United States history - have watched as a steady stream of smokers decided to kick the habit. Since 1981, the number of smokers has declined 2 percent a year. More alarming for tobacco companies is who is deciding to abstain: the upscale trend-setters, ``the adult males who wear ties,'' as Dr. Connolly puts it, and adolescents - the future market.
Across the country, smokers are getting signals that smoking is a major barrier to success. ``I see an unconscious, and sometimes conscious, bias against smoking and those who smoke,'' says Barbara Hackman Franklin, a consultant on the boards of several corporations.
Ms. Franklin recalls a meeting at one of her client's offices. While waiting for the chief operating officer (COO), one manager lit up.
``The COO comes zipping in, takes one look at Tom, and says, `Tom, you're smoking, why don't you sit over there,' and banished him to the other end of the room,'' she remembers. ``That sent a message to everyone.''
Though bias against smokers is anecdotal, some of it is filtering into the statistics. Last year the Bureau of National Affairs surveyed 660 companies and found that 36 percent had adopted restrictive policies on smoking and 22 percent were studying them.
These measures, combined with more restrictions on smokers, mean that ``removing the social stigma of smoking is the industry's key strategy,'' says Connolly.
Though it is too early to tell, Reynolds may be aiming to win back the upscale smoker. The new product might be priced at a premium, Reynolds says. Still, it is unclear whether the product will reverse the exodus of smokers, which began at the top, from reaching to lower income levels.
What concerns antismoking groups more is how young people will react to the smokeless cigarette. The groups fear losing hard-won gains that have been made in discouraging teen-agers from smoking. Since 1978, the share of high school seniors who smoke has dropped from 27.3 to 19.5 percent.
Notes Ms. Kling at the American Lung Association, ``We are especially alarmed about this product because of the possibility that young people may be encouraged ... to take up the smoking habit if they are fooled into thinking this is a safe way to smoke cigarettes.''