How did Marlboro cigarettes, the best-selling brand in the world, ever get so popular in the first place? Was it really the Marlboro Man? Did people just like the taste? What? According to a new study in this month's American Journal of Public Health the secret may well have been "freebase nicotine." Really.
For a long time, many cigarette companies used ammonia during the manufacturing process to inflate the volume of tobacco, accentuate certain flavors, or even get rid of a few carcinogens. But in the early 1960s, according to Terrell Stevenson and Robert Proctor, Philip Morris started using ammonia to freebase the nicotine in cigarette smoke, creating a form of "crack nicotine" that delivered a speedier, sharper kick, and essentially allowed Philip Morris to keep rolling out addictive cigarettes while lowering tar and nicotine levels to allay public fears.
As it happens, Philip Morris first perfected its ammonia trick with Marlboros, which quickly rose from being a bit player to becoming the most dominant cigarette brand on the market, which forced all the other manufacturers to scramble to figure out Philip Morris's secret. (They did, eventually.) Over the last decade, as the industry has come under fire for manipulating nicotine levels to keep customers hooked, Philip Morris has managed to defend itself by noting that ammonia has all sorts of more innocuous uses and couldn't possibly be playing a role here. I guess we'll see if this new paper kicks the last legs out from under that defense.