BOSTON — Look at a can of soup, and you'll know everything the manufacturer has put in there, even if some words are a mouthful. Look at a pack of cigarettes, and you'll see only a brand name and the surgeon general's warning.
But a new Massachusetts law may shed some unprecedented light on the secretive tobacco industry. The Tobacco Disclosure Act, to be signed by Gov. William Weld (R) this week, is the first time a state has required tobacco companies to list all the pesticides, flavor enhancers, and preservatives in each brand of their products.
"People should know what is in tobacco products," says Warren Tolman (D), the Massachusetts state senator who sponsored the tobacco law. "Every food and every drug has to list its ingredients, and tobacco products will now be held to the same standard."
"Ingredients such as ammonia, cyanide, butane, and DDT are added to cigarettes," he adds. "If consumers want to consume these products, they have a right to know what they are ingesting."
The disclosure act opens up a new front for states to control tobacco use, says Richard Daynard of the Tobacco Liability Institute at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. The law would not require the ingredients to be listed on a carton label, but it would force tobacco companies to file with the federal government a list of ingredients in each brand. The law would also require the companies to measure the level of nicotine that is absorbed into the body after smoking one cigarette. "This puts it in terms that the consumer can understand," Mr. Daynard says.
Some states have launched major antismoking advertisement campaigns, some have divested their employee pension funds of tobacco company stocks, and others have sued tobacco producers over the cost of smoking-related health care. But the Massachusetts law is the first to deal with the contents of tobacco products on the regulatory front, Daynard says.
Senator Tolman's office says it has received calls from dozens of lawmakers in other states for information about the law.
Antismoking activists say tobacco firms will challenge the new law in federal court, but industry spokesman Thomas Lauria says, "We are still exploring our options."
Industry officials argue that they already provide the US Department of Health and Human Services with a list of the 600 additives used in making the full range of tobacco products. "There doesn't appear to be any need for this law," says Mr. Lauria of the Tobacco Institute in Washington.
The current practice "is done in a way that foreign competitors couldn't figure out the formula for the flavor of Marlboro, for instance," he says. "That formula is valuable."
Even if the Massachusetts law faces a long court fight, it will inevitably go into effect, Daynard says.
"This law was very carefully constructed, and I expect it is almost certain to survive a challenge," he says. "The only thing left for the tobacco companies to argue is that somehow they're special, compared with every other ingestible product. That's not an appealing legal argument."
The next step, he says, would be for states to require companies to run tests and tell health officials whether a product contains high levels of carcinogens, the compounds that researchers link with cancer.
Antismoking groups say the ingredients lists would be spread quickly via nationwide ad campaigns.