Counterfeit cigarettes 'high in heavy metals'

Man smoking no-smoking signA study of counterfeit cigarettes seized in the US supply chain has found that are almost always loaded with lead and cadmium, heavy metals known to be hazardous to health.

In the sampling study, researchers analysed 23 packs of cigarettes intercepted by various law enforcement agencies and found that on average their lead concentrations were around 10-fold higher than genuine equivalents, with cadmium levels approximately five times higher.

Exposure to lead has been linked to the development of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, while cadmium is recognised carcinogen, and 22 out of the 23 samples showed elevated levels.

"Inhaling smoke generated from combustion of counterfeit cigarettes therefore is more likely to result in additional health risks," say the researchers, who were led by Yi He of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, US. The research is published in the July 2015 edition of the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.

Tobacco plants are known to accumulate heavy metals from the soil in which they are grown, particularly if it is acidic and contaminated from industrial activity, and for this reason the big tobacco companies avoid using tobacco grown in this type of soil. 

The research lends weight to the notion that counterfeiters are less discerning, and do not deploy the same quality control procedures to minimise heavy metal content.

"It can be assumed that the greater the market share of counterfeit cigarettes, the greater the public health implications of the illegal cigarette trade," write the authors.

Larger sampling studies looking at heavy metals in cigarettes as a surrogate marker for illicit tobacco, could potentially provide an indication of how common fakes are in the supply chain.

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