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DID PHILIP MORRIS MANIPULATE `LIGHT' NICOTINE LEVELS?

Contrary to what its executives told Congress under oath, tobacco giant Philip Morris manipulated addictive nicotine in Benson & Hedges and Merit cigarettes, a congressman contends.

Philip Morris scientists discovered that "light," or low-tar, cigarettes needed a bigger proportion of nicotine than regular brands if they were to appeal to hard-core smokers, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., charged Monday.He unveiled on the House floor what he said were secret company documents that outline the research to find this ideal level - 10 parts nicotine to 100 parts tar - and showed how the nicotine-tar ratios in Benson & Hedges and Merit brands met that proportion.

"Philip Morris deliberately increased nicotine levels in commercially marketed cigarettes," concluded Waxman, who obtained the documents during his investigation of the tobacco industry.

The company called Waxman's attack "misleading," saying that in 1978 it redesigned its Bensen & Hedges regular length cigarettes to reduce their tar and nicotine by about 90 percent.

In a statement, Philip Morris said there were "subsequent slight fluctuations in tar and nicotine levels . . . from natural variations in climate and growing conditions" in the 1980s but said they were still dramatically below the pre-1978 levels.

Waxman is trying to pressure the Food and Drug Administration to regulate nicotine as an addictive drug and then use that authority to fight teenage tobacco use by banning cigarette vending machines and curtailing advertising.