Organic Smoke

Thursday, June 22, 2006

What's In Your Tobacco

By Albert Sun Butler, 06/22/06

Health concerns about smoking raise questions of exactly what goes into cigarettes. Cancer rates began to rise precipitously after WWII as a whole new generation of potent pesticides and herbicides were marketed to farmers by chemical companies and county extension agents. At the same time, tobacco companies began to experiment with synthetic flavoring and processing agents so they could utilize low quality cheaply produced tobacco. This treatise is a short primer for the concerned smoker and non-smoker alike. Chemicals in our environment, applied to our farmland and in the food supply are everybody’s business.

Conventional tobacco growers are forced to rely heavily on chemicals to produce cheap tobacco. Many tobacco growers apply Aldicarb to their land to control tobacco nematodes (soil organism). Aldicarb is a serious contaminant of drinking water and can cause permanent neurological effects. Farmers often suffer nerve damage from applying this chemical. Young tobacco plants are dipped in Imidicloprid, a systemic insecticide before transplant. 14 weeks later, when aphids (a tobacco pest) feed on that tobacco they ingest the poison from inside the plant and die. Both Aldicarb and Imidicloprid are regularly detected in conventional tobacco samples.

The 2003 GAO report “Pesticides in Tobacco”[1] identifies among others ethylene di-bromide and the herbicide 2,4-D as extremely toxic residues found in cured tobacco. In 2005 the USDA Domestic Tobacco Pesticide Testing was discontinued with the end of the government regulated Tobacco Quota Program. Such testing is now left to the tobacco companies which are under “voluntary compliance” with maximum permissible residues for EDB 2,4-D and other pesticide residue levels. These permitted residue levels in tobacco are considered “safe” by the EPA.

20,000 patients are treated in US hospitals every year for pesticide poisoning, mostly farmers and farm workers. If you have any doubts about the dangers of pesticides in our food or tobacco read the document “How Toxic are Pesticides” at the website footnoted below[2]

Processed tobacco for RYO and cigarettes can have over to 496 different additives and flavorings applied to the tobacco after it leaves the field. Fumigants such as Phosphine gas[3]may be used during storage. Ethylene glycol prevents mold. Many synthetic additives have never been approved by the FDA. Other additives such as ammonia actually increase nicotine absorption into your bloodstream. This allows tobacco companies to sell “Low Nic” cigarettes that have the same kick as higher nicotine tobacco.

Reconstituted tobacco[4] is made from tobacco waste that is processed with ammonia and DAP (a fire retardant) and pressed into a paper-like sheet. “Recon” as it is referred to in the industry is sprayed with a soup of chemical additives to make it taste like tobacco again. When cut and mixed with natural leaf, reconstituted tobacco increases the “filling capacity”(less tobacco in your cigarette) of tobacco. All commercial brands of cigarettes and RYO tobacco are made with “reconstituted” tobacco unless their advertising states “100% Natural tobacco”.

According to the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension service, raw tobacco may contain “materials such as stalks, suckers, grass, excessive amounts of dirt, rubber gloves, foil wrappers, string, paper, etc. Barn insulating foam and rubber gloves present a special problem because their color and weight is similar to cured tobacco and may not be detected before processing”[5]. All of these contribute to off-flavors and potentially unhealthy by-products in the smoke. Tobacco growers and manufacturers go to great lengths to keep tobacco clean and to remove foreign materials. Yet industrial tobacco processors that stem and pack thousands of tons of tobacco at time can never remove 100% of the foreign material in tobacco. Some of the materials listed above inevitably wind up in your cigarette.

It is a well kept secret in the industry that a visual inspection of the final product stream from any commercial tobacco stemmery will yield some foreign materials. Only a return to traditional methods of hand inspecting every leaf could guarantee no foreign material in tobacco. This would increase the cost of tobacco stemming and manufacturing.

A small group of tobacco growers have had their farms certified organic and produced organic tobacco without pesticides for the last ten years. These growers are paid double the market price for their organically grown tobacco. Yet organic cigarettes are sold for virtually the same price as conventional premium brands. What does this tell you?

US tobacco companies could eliminate pesticide use on every tobacco farm in the country by the next growing season and still make a profit. They could pay the grower a fair price to produce organic tobacco and even a little extra to hand inspect the tobacco for foreign material. But the US consumer’s love affair with cheap discount tobacco products makes this un-likely. For a the same price of most premium conventional brands you could be smoking clean certified organic tobacco grown on family farms where growers still take pride in their tobacco. Instead, you are smoking cheap mass produced pesticide-laden tobacco that in the near future will be produced entirely in third world countries where there is little or no government regulation of pesticides. You make the choice. Write to your favorite tobacco brand and demand that they begin producing an organic alternative. When organic tobacco and other farm products become available in your area, patronize them. Don’t shortchange your health and the health of our US farming population and crop-land, for the price of a cheap smoke.
[3] Residue Formations of Phosphorus Hydride Polymers and Phosphorus Oxyacids during Phosphine Gas Fumigations of Stored Products; J. Agric. Food Chem., 54 (1),
[4] Marlboro Blend, Data and Interpretation; Casey and Perfetti, 1980


At 8:32 AM, Blogger Bryan D. Bertsch said...

Organic Pipe Dreams is not currently in production. Do you know of any organic pipe tobacco?

At 12:38 PM, Blogger Paddy said...

Hi there
My God, that makes for some scarey reading!
Trouble is I'm 51 and have smoked a pipe for most of my adult life, so I guess I've ingested my fair share of those vile adulterants!
Still, on the basis of 'better late than never', I have started growing and curing my own tobacco and i'm amazed because the finished product I've made is spectacular- but more of that later.
I live in Italy where I have a small farm on which I grow certified organic echinacea for making into tincture.
Other farmers grow alot of tobacco in this area (mostly bright Virginia but a bit further north they also grow quite alot of Kentucky, which they call black tobacco here), and they spray some suspicious chemical on it which smells a bit like dishwashing soap- you can smell it all over the place in the summer months. I've been told it's a growth inhibitor which keeps the plants below about 5 feet high, so the mechanical harvesters can do their job.
Does any one out there have any more info about what this chemical might be? I'd be really interested to hear more.
Anyway, last year I got a tray of bright Virginia seedlings from a local grower and planted them in a plot I'd prepared. They grew beautifully and I ended up with about 80lbs of wet leaf (I also grew about 6 plants of Kentucky).
I hung them up in one of my barns and let them cure there for about 6 weeks from the end of September.
The Kentucky ended up a very dark chocolate brown, and the bright turned into a lovely deep gold colour.
Then I decided to process them further with a 2 month period of anaerobic fermentation, to see if they would develop a more complex and interesting flavour profile.
I did this by packing them into large (approx 2 gal) glass jars after I'd stripped out the ribs.
I sealed up the jars and put them in a water bath which I'd rigged up to maintain a temp of about 125 deg F. Before putting the leaf in the jars I made sure it was very damp, almost wet, to create a good environment for fermentation.
Eight weeks later I took them out of the jars and was amazed by the wonderful rich, fruity aroma they had developed.
Then I hung them up in another outbuilding an several long washing lines until the moisture content was low enough to prevent mold growth.
Then I shredded the leaf through a pasta machine which gives strands 1.5mm wide- perfect for pipe tobacco, in my opinion.
I've ended up using about 80% bright and 20 % Kentucky and the blend is absolutely fantastic. Rich, mellow and extremely satisfying.
One other question I have is that if I accept a tray of seedlings from my Italian farmer friend, will they already have been dipped in that systemic insecticide you mentioned?
If so, I think I'll grow my own from seed this year (I'd better hurry up and get on it!).
Anyway, I hope you might have enjoyed reading about my experimentation- and thank you very much for giving out that info that tobacco growers never seem to want to talk about! (I wonder why not...).
Best wishes,
Paddy in Umbria

At 8:45 PM, Blogger Matt Smith said...

Hello Paddy, I'm a writer in my 40's and was just gifted a handmade Stefano pipe for my b-day. I will be trying your recipe, thank you for posting. Our family eats chem-free so, after searching the market I concluded that we will have to grow our own tobacco. Would you be willing to sell a small portion of your experiment to me? It would relieve the hearts of those who gave me the gift while we grow our own. 4 life and safety at g-mail dot com. Thanks again for posting.


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