Saturday, 18 May 2013

NSM - New Smoking Materials


This  acronym is emblazoned on my heart.  If you Google the letters, you are offered variously, A Naval strike missile, The College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Nationstar Mortgages, The National Seating and Mobility Company and less desirably, The National Socialist Movement.
     For me however it means New Smoking Material, the subject of a major 1970's joint research project between Imperial Chemical Industries and Imperial Tobacco. The objective was to produce a safer smoke. In the Times at the weekend, I noted an article on electronic cigarettes that deliver only nicotine, a niche market with prospects, now attracting the major tobacco companies. The article actually mentioned the NSM project that I worked on and brought back memories.
     From 1970, I spent six years on the NSM project in a variety of roles. The work ethic was awesome, driven by a director who survived WWII as a Japanese POW. It had become clear fairly early on in the research that it was fairly easy to make a substrate that would burn at the same rate as tobacco in a cigarette, producing far less toxins. The big problem was making it taste like tobacco and the imponderable within the problem was nicotine, the poisonous and addictive component that defines tobacco. While research continued on deconstructing tobacco flavour and looking at means of delivering nicotine, the project priority was to produce a neutral healthy substitute that could be mixed with normal tobacco to reduce cigarette toxicity by dilution.
     The UK government was an interested party within two of its departments. The problem of regulatory approval of tobacco substitutes was delegated to the Hunter Committee chaired by Professor Robert Hunter. They developed a list of short and long term toxicological tests to which such materials had to be submitted. Some of the long term tests were performed on dogs (The Smoking Beagles), attracting lurid tabloid headlines and the aggressive attention of the animal rights lobby. This exposure was partly responsible for a change in sentiment within ICI. One ICI director referred to Imperial Tobacco as 'the merchants of death.' The manufacturing plant eventually built to produce NSM was a 100% investment by Imperial Tobacco.
       The other UK government department that took a keen interest as we approached commercialisation was the Customs and Excise. They were concerned that their lucrative takings from tobacco might be threatened by substitutes, so they decided to tax them more or less in the same way. A minor concession was the application of the so called 'commonwealth preference rate' designed to give then Rhodesian tobacco a marginal advantage over the American flue cured variety.
      There were competitors, most notably American Celanese with their Cytrel product. ICI had a patent dispute with Celanese requiring visits to arcane counsel chambers in London and a session at the patent court. We were keen to protect our discoveries with patents. I have a vivid memory of smoking a substitute cigarette in the US Patent Office in Washington on my first ever visit to the US. We got the patent.
     In July 1977 Imperial, Gallahers and  Rothmans launched a dozen versions of cigarettes containing 20-30% of NSM or Cytrel. Health groups criticised them for still delivering substantial doses of toxins, an unproven half measure, they said. In addition many consumers said that they didn't like the taste. Sales turned out to be very small and the products were withdrawn after a few months.
      For ICI, it was an object lesson in how a long term project with laudable aims can be undermined by changing times. The wind had turned round, blowing the smoke back into ICI's face.

The Glorious Twelfth by Alan Calder- Buy Links

 Also by Alan Calder, The Stuart Agenda published by Willowmoon




  1. This info is invaluable. How can I find out more?

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    1. Very little is in the public domaine but do try to google it. There was a lot of publicity in the press at the time in the mid 1970's. Thanks for your interest.