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Southampton base leading research into cigarette alternatives through British American Tobacco

THEIR research could help save lives.

But the irony is they work for one of the largest cigarette manufacturers in the world.

Southampton is described as “mission control” for BAT (British American Tobacco) research and development by group scientific and research and development director David O’Reilly.

More than 400 work in the research and development (R&D) department at the firm’s premises in Regents Park, which has just celebrated its 60th anniversary. That represents two thirds of the global tobacco giant’s R&D workforce.

The department was set in 1956 immediately after the first reports linking smoking and lung cancer were published.

Since then its scientists have been working on ways to reduce the “toxicants” – poisonous substances – produced by burning tobacco and in the past two decades they have been working on safer alternatives to the cigarette.

As David explains: “Burning a cigarette is one of the most complex chemical reactions known to man.”

Lighting up releases 100 toxicants and as David stresses it is the combustion not the nicotine which causes the problem and claims smoking a cigarette stuffed with lettuce leaves would be just as harmful as a Lucky Strike.

Ten years ago BAT began its Next Generation project to research alternatives ways of delivering the nicotine hit millions crave.

Perhaps the simplest and least vaunted of these is Snus, which BAT discovered in Sweden, where it is seen as the natural alternative to smoking.

Although Snus translates as snuff it is not sniffed but sucked. Users slip a sachet of Snus, rather like a mini teabag about the size of a first class stamp, under their top lip.

David, a Snus user, explains that it helped him quit smoking. “You could argue it has saved my life,” he says as he slips one into his mouth and continues to talk normally.

While studies have shown Snus to be safe and Sweden has the lowest levels of lung cancer in the world, the product has proved to a be a bit of a dead end for BAT, thanks to the EU which has banned it sales.

Snus is a victim of the EU’s tobacco products reguations which class it alongside chewing tobacco products such as Skoal Bandits which were banned because of their links with mouth cancer.

The beauty of Snus is that there is no combustion which leads David to talking about “heat not burn”.

Scientists at Southampton are currently working on a device which creates an aerosol like an e-cigarette (scientifically speaking e-cigs produce an aerosol not a vapour) by heating liquid which is drawn across a plug of tobacco.

BAT are to test out this product in Romania but it will be some time before its ready to challenge the e-cig.

BAT were the first major tobacco firm to produce an e-cigarette – the Vype and the labs at Southampton are working on improvements and refinements all the time.

Although vaping has had a mixed press, for once it seems BAT has medical opinion on its side. A new report by the Royal College of Physicians stated e-cigarettes were not a gateway to traditional smoking and should be widely promoted as a substitute to cigarettes as they were likely be beneficial to UK public health.

Public Health England produced findings which said that e-cigarettes were 95 per cent safer than old style smokes.

“People who use E-cigarettes are don’t see themselves as smokers and they feel good for that,” said David.

The World Health Organisation do not take the same view and its report of 2014 the cautioned about potential risks of using e-cigarettes and they are banned in many countries including Argentina, Brazil and Indonesia.

So where will we be 60 years from now? Will fags be consigned to the ashtray of history and will firms like BAT be 100 per cent vape?

David O’Reilly is reluctant to forecast the future and he says BAT is hedging its bets. Using the analogy of video technology he says they will be “backing VHS and Betamax.”

It is likely that tobacco market will be fragmented with no one dominant product and BAT wants to have a product ready for every kind of smoker.

Perhaps the answer will be the Voke – a tobacco inhaler using the world’s smallest breath-activated valve and involving no heating or burning.

It will be aimed at smokers who want to quit or cut down – it will only be available in pharmacies at first but David does not rule out the possibility that it could be become a non-medical product. Tellingly the prototype he shows me looks just like a cigarette packet.

BAT has been in Southampton for 102 years and now employs 1,200 – more than when it closed down cigarette manufacturing in 2005 – making it one of the city’s largest employers.

In addition to the R&D department, Southampton is home to a distribution, IT and leaf sourcing.

David O’Reilly said: “BAT sees Southampton as a great place to do business.”

In the last six years BAT have invested £26 million in their Southampton offices including £2.1m on a mini processing plant to produce prototypes.

After closing their factory in 2005 BAT set up a £750,000 legacy fund which has distributed £442,000 in grants which, the firm claims, have benefitted 454,000 people in the area.

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