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Ammonia is a colorless gas with a well-known pungent odor found in household cleaners. It is intensely irritating to skin, eyes and the respiratory tract. Household ammonia, the form of ammonia with which people are most familiar, actually consists of a 5-10% solution of ammonia in water. Ammonia is very soluble in water.
- "Inhalation of diluted sidestream smoke leads to strong short and long-term irritation...By and large, diluted sidestream smoke is 10 times more irritative than one would predict from its ammonia concentration."
Documents indicate cigarette companies add ammonia to cigarettes to freebase nicotine, which gives the user a more intense nicotine "kick" after lighting up. In the mid-1970s, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR, makers of Camel and Winston brands) noticed that their competitor's brands, particularly Marlboro (a Philip Morris brand), were experiencing much higher sales than their brands. Determined to find out why RJR's brands were doing so poorly compared to these others, RJR chemically "deconstructed" Marlboro cigarettes with the aim of finding out just how they were different.
Around 1973, RJR discovered that Philip Morris (PM) had made a "deliberate and controlled" chemical change in the smoke of their cigarettes. PM was altering the smoke pH by adding ammonia to the tobacco, which made the smoke more alkaline. In a more alkaline atmosphere, more nicotine "...occurs in 'free' form, which is volatile, rapidly absorbed by the smoker, and believed to be instantly perceived as nicotine 'kick'."  The chemical reaction that occurs when ammonia is added is called "freebasing."
Freebasing was the same chemical process used by comedian Richard Pryor in 1980. Pryor set himself on fire while trying to freebase cocaine, the process that turns cocaine into crack.
- Terrell Stevenson, BA and Robert N. Proctor, PhD The SECRET and SOUL of Marlboro: Phillip Morris and the Origins, Spread, and Denial of Nicotine Freebasing American Journal of Public Health July 2008, Vol 98, No. 7, Pp.1184-1194
- WITNESS CONFIRMS SECRET PHILIP MORRIS' 'DENICOTINIZATION' PLANT, USE OF AMMONIA TO 'FREEBASE' NICOTINE DEPOSITION ALSO REVEALS CONTINUED HIDING OF DOCUMENTS SOUGHT BY FDA, STATES 1996 news article
- Project Ship British American Tobacco, 1984
- Deposition of DENNIS DONNELLY DIETZ, Ph.D., September 29, 1997, MINNESOTA v. PHILIP MORRIS INC. Deposition of a Liggett scientist; discusses ammonia and freebase nicotine
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