A smokeless nicotine-delivery system developed by a Duke University researcher is now in the hands of tobacco-industry giant Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM).

Philip Morris has purchased the patent and global rights to an aerosol nicotine-delivery system developed by Jed Rose, director of Duke's Center for Nicotine and Smoking Cessation Research. Financial terms were not disclosed. The Associated Press reports that Duke University has no role in Rose's agreement with Philip Morris and won't receive any money.

Philip Morris will develop the aerosol technology into a smokeless product that it says could be less harmful than traditional cigarettes. Company spokesman Peter Nixon told the AP that it's too early to say what form the product might take and that translating the technology into a product could take three to five years. But it appears that Philip Morris will pitch the product as a healthier alternative. The company said that it's not the nicotine that causes smoking-related diseases, it's the combustion.

That's consistent with Rose's thinking. The Duke researcher has experience in other nonsmoking nicotine technologies. He led initial studies in the 1980s that led to nicotine patches as a smoking-cessation treatment. He said that by avoiding the combustion but giving smokers nicotine to inhale without toxic substances, the harmful health effects of smoking can be reduced.

"Hopefully it's a wave of the future that inhaling combusted, burning tobacco will someday be a thing of the past," Rose told the AP.

The new nicotine technology comes as tobacco companies seek new products as smoking rates decline. Some smokeless products are already on the market. Rose said his technology is different from the current slate of nicotine inhaler products currently available because it delivers nicotine more rapidly to mimic the nicotine "hit" that a cigarette provides smokers.

While Philip Morris is still in R&D mode for its new smokeless product, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has weighed in on the electronic cigarettes, or "e-cigarettes," that are already on the market. An agency evaluation of such products found that one sample contained diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical found in antifreeze. Other samples contained carcinogens. The FDA this spring stated it would regulate smokeless products, such as e-cigarettes, as tobacco rather than as medical devices. That decision was considered a win for the industry, as medical devices come with greater regulatory scrutiny and could have required clinical trials. But that ruling isn't a sign-off on the safety of these products. While the composition of Philip Morris' product has yet to be determined, the presence of dangerous chemicals in the current slate of smokeless products shows that these products still carry risks even without the combustion of materials.

Tobacco's ties to the history and economy of North Carolina are extensive. Tobacco remains a big business in the state, which is still home to cigarette companies Reynolds American (NYSE: RAI) in Winston-Salem and Lorillard (NYSE: LO) in Greensboro. Duke University has a tobacco connection, as its benefactors, Washington Duke and his son James Buchanan Duke, made their fortunes in the tobacco industry. Now a new technology from a Duke researcher is offering another way to consume nicotine. Perhaps the FDA will tell us whether it's any safer.

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