Illegal cigarettes pack toxic punch

Tobacco plants excel at extracting heavy metals from contaminated soils. So, it’s not surprising that tobacco grown in such dirt can deliver large doses of the toxic elements to smokers’ lungs. The tobacco in some illegal cigarettes seems to have been grown using metal-laced fertilizers, making the cigarettes even more harmful than the real things, scientists say.

Illegal cigarettes, packaged to resemble genuine brands, supply about 5 percent of the market in the United Kingdom. To see whether these illicit products have unique chemical characteristics, W. Edryd Stephens of the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, and two colleagues analyzed 47 knockoffs seized by British officials.

Three carcinogens—arsenic, cadmium, and lead—were typically three to six times as abundant in the cigarettes of counterfeit brands as in those of the eight legal brands they mimicked, the researchers report in the Jan. 15 Environmental Science & Technology.

The scientists also determined the abundance of certain chemical isotopes in each product. The results suggest that relatively heavy use of contaminated phosphate fertilizers may account for the high metal content in counterfeit cigarettes.

U.K. law treats cigarette counterfeiting as a matter of tax evasion, but these cigarettes also add to smoking’s public health threat, Stephens and his colleagues say.

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