WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- In an often hostile exchange with congressional questioners yesterday, top tobacco company executives emphatically denied that they raise nicotine levels in cigarettes, insisted that nicotine was not addictive and said that they remain unconvinced that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease and other life-threatening ailments.
"We have looked at the data . . . [and] it does not convince me that smoking causes death," said Andrew H. Tisch, chairman and chief executive officer of the Lorillard Tobacco Co.
But Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health, berated the executives for their failure to acknowledge what medical experts have scientifically documented for many years -- that cigarettes are addictive and that they kill more than 400,000 Americans annually.
"That is an astounding, almost incomprehensible statistic," Mr. Waxman said. "Imagine our nation's outrage if two fully loaded jumbo jets crashed each day killing all aboard. Yet, that's the same number ofAmericans that cigarettes kill every 24 hours."
The seven tobacco executives, appearing together before Congress for the first time, did so largely to respond to growing reports that the industry manipulates the level of nicotine in cigarettes to maintain smokers' addictions.
Momentum has been building on Capitol Hill and in other parts of the federal government to regulate cigarettes -- which have remained virtually unregulated, unlike foods, drugs and almost all other items in the marketplace.
Food and Drug Administration officials have said that they believe the agency has the authority to regulate cigarettes as drugs because of the addictive nature of nicotine; the agency is exploring the possibility.
"This hearing marks the beginning of a new relationship between Congress and the tobacco companies," Mr. Waxman said. "The oldrules are out -- the standards that apply to every other company are in."
Tobacco companies have never acknowledged a link between cigarettes and health dangers and have maintained in lawsuits that smoking was not a matter of addiction but of freedom of choice.
Over and over yesterday, industry officials denied they manipulate nicotine levels to keep smokers addicted.
"We do not do anything to hook smokers or keep them hooked," any more than coffee manufacturers manipulate caffeine, said James W. Johnston, chairman and chief executive officer of RJ Reynolds Co. "This company is not engaged in some sinister plot to deceive the American smoker." Nicotine, he added, only "enhances the overall smoking experience."
Nevertheless, all of the executives acknowledged that nicotine concentrations could be adjusted through blending different tobaccos -- a practice they said their companies all engage in when manufacturing cigarettes to accommodate different tastes.
"Yes, people will get different concentrations of nicotine in cigarettes depending on the blending process,"said Alexander W. Spears, vice chairman of Lorillard.
"Our smokers want a consistent product," said Mr. Johnston of RJ Reynolds, insisting that the formulas were followed to maintain the individual qualities of each particular brand. "Our smokers want Winstons to taste like Winstons -- yesterday, today and tomorrow."
The executives also denied that nicotine was an addictive substance -- despite scientific evidence to the contrary -- maintaining that more than 40 million Americans had been able to quit the habit.
"Smokers are not drug users or addicts, and we do not appreciate being characterized as such," said William Campbell, president of Phillip Morris U.S.A. "I have a common-sense definition of addiction. I'm a smoker, and I'm not a drug addict."
After being pressured by several subcommittee members, the tobacco officials, who have been accused of suppressing research showing the addictive qualities of nicotine, reluctantly agreed to turn over all of their animal research, notes, internal memorandums and other data to the subcommittee.
In a testy exchange, Mr. Johnston refused to provide materials deemed "proprietary," that is, containing trade secrets. He was met with the threat of a congressional subpoena.
"You will submit the data," Mr. Waxman demanded.
Mr. Campbell of Phillip Morris called the session "theater bordering on circus."