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16th Oct 2018

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Study: EU test undervalued toxicity of cigarettes

  • The Dutch study found that in some cigarettes the levels of tar was up to 26 times higher simply by using a different measurement system (Photo: Stas Svechnikov)

The test method currently used in the EU to determine levels of carbon monoxide, nicotine, and tar in cigarettes structurally underestimates the presence of those harmful substances, according to a Dutch study out this week.

Measured levels of tar were at least twice as high when using a different testing method, and up to 26 times as high, said the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) on Tuesday (12 June).

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  • Cigarettes have minuscule holes, which smokers sometimes cover when they hold the cigarette with their fingers or mouth. During the official test clean air enters through these holes (Photo: Cameron Kirby)

Nicotine levels were between two and 17 times as high, and carbon monoxide between two and 20 times as high.

The RIVM tested 100 cigarettes using the so-called Canadian Intense (CI) method. Only one cigarette had values below the EU legal limit.

The RIVM and the Dutch deputy minister for health, Paul Blokhuis, said that the CI test procedure was more realistic than the one that is currently used in the EU, by the International Standards Organisation (ISO).

Both tests are done by machines.

The main difference was that in the method used by the Dutch, minuscule holes in the cigarettes were covered, just like many smokers sometimes do when they hold the cigarette with their fingers or mouth.

These filter ventilation holes are not covered during the standard EU test, and allow additional clean air to enter, diluting the measured levels of carbon monoxide, nicotine, and tar.

Blokhuis said in a letter to parliament on Tuesday he would inform the European Commission and the 27 other EU member states of the "worrying results", and ask health commission Vytenis Andriukaitis about any follow-up.

Commission spokeswoman Anca Paduraru told EUobserver in an email on Thursday, however, that the Netherlands had presented the issue in an expert group on 6 June, "but there was limited interest from the other member states to take this discussion forward at this point."

She added the issue could be discussed at a next meeting of the EU's expert group on tobacco policy.

No 'gold standard'

Spokeswoman Paduraru noted that during the revision of the tobacco products directive, there was not enough evidence to switch measurement methods.

"The commission is aware of the limitations of currently available methods for the measurement of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide in cigarettes," she said.

"Current measurements methods (including Canadian Intense method) do not correspond to actual human exposure as the methods use machines for measurements," Paduraru added.

She also stressed that because the machine-based results were not properly reflecting actual smoking behaviour, cigarette packs no longer have the tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide levels on the labels.

According to the 2014 directive, the commission has the authority to propose a new test method.

"But in the absence of a gold standard and for the purpose of regulatory continuity, the International Standards Organisation methodologies continue to be used for emission measurements," said the commission spokeswoman.

"By 2021, the commission will report on the application of the tobacco products directive. If appropriate and based on the findings of the report, proposals for amending the directive may be expected," she added.

Filter ventilation 'was known'

The Dutch ministry of health published emails from three of the four major tobacco companies, in which they respond to the results.

In its response, British American Tobacco (BAT) refuted Blokhuis' statement that the Canadian Incense method estimated smoking behaviour more accurately.

"Smoking habits vary per individual, making it impracticable to design a test that adequately reflects human smoking habits," said BAT.

Imperial Tobacco made similar points, and added that the existence of the minuscule holes in cigarettes was no secret.

"The application of filter ventilation has been known, understood and permitted by EU regulators under all current and past European Tobacco regulation, most recently in the revised TPD, 2014," it said.

Tobacco company Philip Morris was quoted in Dutch newspaper Volkskrant on Thursday saying that it would accept a different testing method – but that in that case the legal limits would also have to change.

According to an EU-funded survey published last year, 26 percent of EU citizens said they were smokers, while 20 percent said they had once been smokers but since quit.

In particular Greece (37 percent), Bulgaria (36 percent) and France (36 percent) have a high share of smokers.

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