Production starts on cigarette that company contends is safer; low nicotine version next

Sunday, October 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) _ A tobacco company has begun producing a cigarette it says has fewer cancer-causing ingredients.

The new Omni cigarette brand, made by Durham-based Vector Tobacco, is expected to arrive in retail stores later this month. The cigarettes are made with a chemical treatment that the company says reduces certain cancer-causing elements in cigarette smoke.

A second product, Omni Free, will come out next year using the treatment, plus a new type of tobacco genetically engineered to contain virtually no nicotine.

Vector Tobacco, owned by Miami-based Vector Group Ltd., is a sister company to the Liggett Group Inc., the smallest of the major tobacco companies. Liggett, based in Mebane, was the first cigarette-maker to break ranks with the industry and settle lawsuits brought by state attorneys general.

Cancer-causing chemicals would still be present in the new cigarettes, Vector Group's chairman and chief executive officer admitted earlier this year.

``While there is no such thing as a safe cigarette, we believe we've eliminated what the health community considers to be the most serious cancer causing agents,'' Bennett LeBow said.

Health officials and industry analysts have been skeptical.

``None of the medical authorities, to my knowledge, have said, 'If we take out X or Y we have a safe cigarette,''' said John C. Maxwell, an independent tobacco industry analyst.

The company is investing about $100 million in what it calls its ``less hazardous'' smoking products, and Vector Group's stock has climbed about 200 percent this year. Vector Group said Omni did well in ``consumer taste tests, scoring equal to or slightly better than the leading premium cigarette.''