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Slipped a Mickey | By Abigail Haworth | Photography Dave Bridges
Waiting to Inhale | By Peter Ritter

A Hong Kong biotech company has made a filter that may make smoking safer

WHEN HONG KONG venture capitalist Melissa Mowbray-d・Arbela was approached in 2000 about investing in a new technology related to cigarettes, she reacted as most people would.

:I said, .Get lost, I・m not touching it,・; recalls the 42-year-old Australian-born entrepreneur.

When reflexive indignation wore off, however, Mowbray-d・Arbela considered the idea more carefully. She did some research on the public-health consequences of tobacco use and found that despite declining smoking rates in the west, smoking-related disease still kills about five million people per year V disproportionally in the developing world, where both tobacco regulation and health screening are lax. According to one recent medical study, smoking and linked respiratory illnesses could kill about 83 million Chinese people in the next two decades, equivalent to the entire population of Germany.
:And it・s not just those people who are getting harmed, but also their families,; Mowbray-d・Arbela says. :There・s this ripple effect on poverty.;

The technology Mowbray-d・Arbela was being pitched V which was developed by another Hong Kong-based entrepreneur, Neal Stewart V was a new kind of filter designed to screen toxins from cigarette smoke, potentially reducing that death toll among those either unwilling or unable to quit. Mowbray-d・Arbela says she took the idea to doctors she knew, including her husband, a former physician turned investment banker; all agreed that such a filter could improve public health, she says. More importantly, she approached Judith Mackay, a Hong Kong-based senior advisor to the World Health Organization and perhaps the world・s leading tobacco-control advocate.

:I was absolutely, utterly convinced this was something worth pursuing,; MacKay says. :Up until then, the only people who looked at harm reduction were in the tobacco industry itself. So there was a great deal of skepticism, understandably: there・s not a great deal of trust between the industry and tobacco-control. But in this case, the testing seems to be to be very efficacious.;

For Mowbray-d・Arbela, working to create a cigarette filter that causes less harm to smokers began to seem like a moral imperative as well as a business opening.

Waiting to Inhale | By Peter Ritter

:We want smoking to die out,; she says. :Stopping it: that・s the ultimate aim. But we are also pragmatic.; With seed money from Goldman Sachs, Mowbray-d・Arbela set up Filligent, a Hong Kong biotech company. (The name is a portmanteau of filter and intelligent). Nine years later, Mowbray-d・Arbela・s company is rolling out a line of products using the new technology, including a cigarette filter and a face mask that it says can prevent the transmission of diseases like SARS.

A safer cigarette has long been the grail of the tobacco industry, yet tobacco companies have pursued such technology V known in industry parlance as :harm reduction; V only fitfully, since doing so would implicitly acknowledge that their products are, in fact, harmful. Giant tobacco companies are also loath to make claims about the safety of their products because doing so would open them to litigation for false advertising. Late last year, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the go-ahead for a US$200 billion class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies who, in the 1970s and 80s, marketed light cigarettes as a safer alternative. In fact, the lawsuit contends, the cigarettes were just as dangerous as before, since smokers addicted to nicotine simply smoked more cigarettes and inhaled more deeply to get their nicotine fix.

Furthermore, according to Mackay, even anti-tobacco advocates disagree about whether harm-reduction technology is a good thing. The paradox that tobacco companies have long operated under is that they have to at least make a good show of dissuading new consumers from using their products V while, of course, simultaneously subtly enticing current costumers to continue smoking. A safer cigarette could potentially cut that Gordian knot by removing some of the public stigma from smoking and deluding current smokers into continuing. While such a technology could potentially save lives, it could also inadvertently save the tobacco industry V and that is something tobacco-control advocates definitely do not want.

Engineering a less deadly cigarette also represents a considerable technical challenge. Burning tobacco delivers a large and diverse buffet of toxins into the human body V as many as 4,000 different chemicals, according to Mowbray-d・Arbela. And, because tobacco companies constantly adjust the way they grow and blend tobacco, the specific constituents can vary greatly from one cigarette to another. Among the most pernicious toxins are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which infiltrate human cells, insert themselves into DNA, and, like a virus, begin to multiply as mutated cells. The result is cancer. For a filter to work, Mowbray-d・Arbela says, it has to keep those and other toxins out of the body.

To demonstrate how Filligent・s filter does this, she delicately dissects a cigarette with her fingernail, unwrapping the filter end to reveal a small tuft of cottony material. :This spongy stuff is cellulose acetate,; she says. :This is the normal interface a smoker has.; In the past, smokers have rejected reduced-harm cigarettes that look or taste different than standard cigarettes; to avoid this, Mowbray-d・Arbela says, Filligent・s designers kept the usual cellulose filter. But between that and the tobacco is another filter, this one speckled with blue. This section is implanted with a compound developed by Filligent・s scientists that mimics human cells and tricks cancer-causing aromatic hydrocarbons into attaching themselves to it. :The idea is to attract, trap, and deactivate,; Mowbray-d・Arbela says. That strategy has performed admirably in independent testing, reducing DNA mutations by 40 to 75 percent. (Unlike tobacco companies, which only measure how much of a given toxin is passing through the filter, Filligent tests how much damage those toxins are actually doing).

Yet despite the company・s claims of success, Filligent・s filter may still prove an exceptionally hard sell. An earlier attempt to market cigarettes with the filter in the U.S. fizzled. Mowbray-d・Arbela says that tobacco companies remain leery of any technology that could open new doors to litigation. And some public health officials and tobacco control advocates worry that reduced-harm cigarettes could leech energy from anti-smoking efforts around the world by reducing smoking・s moral hazard. If cigarettes were markedly less lethal, smokers might assume that it was safe to continue smoking V or worse, young people might think it was ok to start.

Rather than trying to push the product in the U.S. or Europe, Mowbray-d・Arbela says her company is focusing on Asia, where state tobacco monopolies may be more willing to adopt the technology. From there it could spread and become an industry standard, she says, comparing it to the inclusion of seatbelts in automobiles, which was also met with initial howling skepticism from industry and consumers.
:There will always be naysayers in something as contentious as this, just as there are for seatbelts,; Mowbray-d・Arbela admits. :But I think we・ve got the time to wait until there・s a critical mass of acceptance.;


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