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Chapter 5: Balancing Act

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The Laboratory entered the field of smoking research in 1968 to support the National Cancer Institute's (NCI) goal of producing a "less hazardous cigarette." The NCI asked Laboratory researchers to participate in a new program coordinated by the Tobacco Working Group, which included government and tobacco industry scientists and administrators. 

W. T. Rainey, Jr., headed the first team in the Analytical Chemistry Division at the Laboratory. 

Commercial cigarettes could not be used in the studies because their exact compositions were trade secrets, so the tobacco industry produced more than 100 kinds of cigarettes specifically for experimental purposes. Later, the University of Kentucky produced a standardized cigarette, called the Kentucky Reference Cigarette, to be used in the tests. These standardized cigarettes were burned on large smoking machines that smoked 360 cigarettes at a time and produced tar by the kilogram. While other contractors used the tar for animal studies, Laboratory researchers performed chemical analyses on the tar and smoke.

This Rube Goldberg-like device, built in 1968, was ORNL's first smoking machine. Researchers analyzed the cigarette smoke.
This Rube Goldberg-like device, built in 1968, was ORNL's first smoking machine. Researchers analyzed the cigarette smoke.

In the early 1970s, the NCI wanted inhalation studies done, but at that time no devices were available to replicate the way a smoker actually inhales. The Analytical Chemistry Division set to work on this problem. Its researchers developed one inhalation apparatus that the NCI used extensively and also contributed to development of several others for the tobacco industry. 

One of the biggest problems with inhalation studies is that the rodents typically used in these studies naturally breathe through their noses. Because the substances of interest in the tobacco smoke were trapped in the test rats' nasal passages, they did not reach the lungs as the researchers intended. To solve this problem, the Laboratory's Biology Division devised an intratracheal cannula—a tube that could be inserted into the rodent's mouth to put the smoke directly into the lung. 

In the late 1970s, biological "smoke" studies became a smaller part of Laboratory research. The focus shifted to chemistry—isolating and identifying the constituents of smoke that cause cancer and mutations. Laboratory researchers provided support for other NCI contractors all over the country. Roger Jenkins, Bob Gill, and Brad Quincy, all of the Analytical Chemistry Division, traveled frequently during the late 1970s, taking their expertise in tobacco smoke chemistry, inhalation toxicology, and inhalation exposure monitoring on the road from laboratory to laboratory. 

In December 1978, the U.S. government committed itself to analyzing all commercial brands of cigarettes for carbon monoxide in addition to tar and nicotine. The Federal Trade Commission laboratory had unforeseen instrument problems, though. The automated infrared system government scientists used for the carbon monoxide analysis failed, and it began to look as though the project would not be completed on time. The Analytical Chemistry Division was asked to help out by analyzing as many of the cigarette brands as possible before the deadline. The Laboratory successfully analyzed some 75 different brands of cigarettes. 

Some support for the Laboratory's smoking research has been provided by the tobacco industry through its research consortium, the Council for Tobacco Research. The American Cancer Society has also sponsored research at the Laboratory, including a study done by Jim Stokely in which he measured the concentration of radioactive polonium-210 in cigarettes. 

Today the emphasis in smoking research is on so-called passive smoke, or environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), and the Laboratory continues in its supporting role. At the University of California at Davis, Laboratory expertise in designing smoke inhalation systems is being put to use in a study of the health effects of ETS on fetal and newborn rats. Results from scientific studies of ETS may help policymakers clarify a still-cloudy issue. 

Beyond the research, the Laboratory in 1991 became a smoke-free environment after an extensive informational and educational program designed to help staff members break the habit. 

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