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The dangers of counterfeit cigarettes

A scientist at the University of St Andrews has discovered high levels of a cancer-causing toxic metal in counterfeit cigarettes, widely available in the UK.

Dr Ed Stephens, who made the discovery when examining samples of the most popular cigarette brands sold in the UK, will reveal his findings at a Customs & Excise campaign against counterfeit brands at Downing Street today.

According to the C&E, more than half the cigarettes currently being seized – more than a million per day – are counterfeit, and 85 per cent of the cigarettes being sold in London are fakes. Dr Stephens’ discovery that counterfeits contain up to 500% more cadmium than their genuine counterparts is underpinning a new Customs campaign to combat the lucrative and illegal trade.

Tobacco is grown under different environmental conditions and cultivation practices which can sometimes lead to contamination of the plant. Global trade in tobacco means that contaminated tobacco could potentially find its way into commercial products. Dr Stephens’ research aimed to discover whether any such tobacco reaches the UK consumer market and if any of that contamination is released into smoke. It is the first study to systematically compare the heavy metal compositions of real and counterfeit cigarettes.

Dr Stephens said: “Some of the most dangerous constituents of tobacco smoke can be traced back to the environment in which the tobacco plant was cultivated. Heavy metals such as arsenic and cadmium – both human carcinogens – can be picked up by the growing tobacco plant from local soil, fertilisers and industrial pollution. If tobacco is grown on land contaminated with heavy metals then a significant fraction of that contamination is destined for the lungs of smokers.”

“There is hardly a better way of delivering some carcinogens to the lungs than smoking tobacco grown in contaminated environments. Our investigation into UK tobacco products found that counterfeit cigarettes are substantially contaminated with toxic elements such as arsenic and lead compared with genuine brands. Over a period of 14 months we found cadmium in counterfeits to average more than five times the concentrations in genuine brands. Other metals were similarly enriched. This is very worrying for the health of those who are heavy and habitual smokers of counterfeits. These products are not just cheap, they are also very nasty.”

‘Heavy metals’ such as cadmium and lead as well as arsenic are well known to occur in tobacco in small quantities and many public health websites list them as harmful agents in tobacco smoke. Cadmium is also found in food, particularly potatoes, grain and cereals, but it is thought that the digestive tract is reasonably efficient at getting rid of it. High levels of metals in tobacco are far more dangerous for two reasons – firstly, because the plant is very efficient at concentrating metals in its leaves and secondly because combustion releases some of these metals into smoke and delivers them directly to the lungs when smoke is inhaled.

Dr Stephens was interested in the various pathways of heavy metals from the cultivation environment to the lungs.

Using techniques specifically developed by Angus Calder at St Andrews for the analysis of trace elements in tobacco, the group analysed samples of popular (and un-named) cigarette brands and compared them with samples of counterfeits seized by HM Customs & Excise over the last 2 years. The country of origin for the counterfeit samples was unknown in most cases but high levels of heavy metals were traced consistently over a period of 14 months testing.

“The results were unexpected and worrying,” continued Dr Stephens, a Geoscientist at St Andrews. “Almost all counterfeits are seriously contaminated with heavy metals. We expected to find the odd rogue batch but had no reason to expect counterfeits to be generically contaminated.”

Identifying the source of these contaminants was a significant challenge for Dr Stephens because of the clandestine nature of the counterfeit industry. Working with Dr Jason Newton at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, they found geochemical characteristics that primarily implicate the use of contaminated fertilisers. Analysis of heavy metal patterns and stable isotope ratios narrowed down the possibilities to either sewage sludge (nitrate) or phosphate fertiliser, the evidence favouring latter source. Contaminated fertilisers are no longer used in countries with strong environmental legislation but this does not apply universally.

“Even at low concentrations, arsenic and cadmium can cause cancers in humans, and, like lead they can give rise to a range of other disorders. Research in our laboratories confirms earlier findings that unlike many trace elements that are largely immobilised in the cigarette ash, substantial amounts of heavy metal toxins escape into smoke to be inhaled by smokers and bystanders alike,” concluded Dr Stephens.

“All smoking is potentially harmful, but high concentrations of these particular heavy metals, in a cocktail with other tobacco smoke toxins, is likely to add significantly to the health risks faced by habitual and heavy smokers of counterfeits.”

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS:

DR STEPHENS WILL BE PRESENT AT TODAY’S C&E MEDIA EVENT.

· DR STEPHENS IS A GEOSCIENTIST AND SENIOR LECTURER AT THE SCHOOL OF GEOGRAPHY & GEOSCIENCES AT ST ANDREWS.

· HIS RESEARCH PAPER ‘SOURCE AND HEALTH IMPLICATION OF HIGH TOXIC METAL CONCENTRATIONS IN ILLICIT TOBACCO PRODUCTS’ – AUTHORED WITH ANGUS CALDER OF ST ANDREWS AND JASON NEWTON – IS DUE TO BE PUBLICSHED BY THE AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY JOURNAL ‘ENVIRONMENT, SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY’.

Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook, Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email gec3@st- andrews.ac.uk Ref: counterfeit cigarettes 151204.doc View the latest University press releases at http://www.st- andrews.ac.uk

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