Massachusetts is about to become the first state to require the tobacco industry to divulge the exact ingredients _ from chocolate to ammonia _ in each brand of cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco.
Tobacco lobbyists complain the law is illegal, forcing them to reveal trade secrets to competitors. Besides, they say the industry has already handed over a list of 599 ingredients found in cigarettes.
Anti-smoking activists say the list doesn't give the exact amounts _ critical to determining whether some cigarettes are more harmful than others.
And they say letting people know exactly what they are inhaling, or chewing, would be a powerful way to get them to stop.
"This bill has touched a nerve and it's almost the third rail of the tobacco industry," said Democratic Sen. Warren Tolman, sponsor of the measure. "Once this information is out, we think it will have an impact on those people who smoke every day, but even more importantly, on the kids who haven't started yet."
The law, which has passed the Legislature and awaits Republican Gov. William Weld's promised signature, also would require companies to provide a "nicotine yield rating" that reveals how much nicotine a cigarettes delivers.
The ingredient list and rating would be given to the state health department and made public.
Massachusetts' law comes at a time when tobacco companies are under mounting legal pressure. Ten states, including Florida, have sued tobacco companies to recover billions of tax dollars spent treating tobacco-related illnesses.
Under intense pressure from Congress, the tobacco industry released a list in 1994 of the 599 chemicals it says are added to cigarettes to give brands their distinctive flavors.
The list included ingredients like ammonia and the insecticide methoprene as well as beeswax, caffeine and chocolate.
Without exact amounts, scientists are unable to determine whether the chemicals harm people or if in certain combinations they can make cigarettes more addictive, as some critics charge.
"What we've learned over the years from the industry's internal documents is that they're trying to get a product that's as addictive as possible," said Mark Gottlieb, a lawyer at Northeastern University's Tobacco Products Liability Project.
"We may be smoking a cigarette that's 50 percent ammonia, though that may be an exaggeration," Gottlieb said. "Unless we have some idea of the quantities of the ingredients, we can't be sure."
But tobacco representatives say the law goes overboard because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has never indicated that the additives pose a health risk.
"We think there's federal protection for trade secrets in our global economy and we expect full protection," said Thomas Lauria, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute in Washington.