This year, the Department of Agriculture will spend $5.3 million to develop a "safer" cigarette. But the two-decade-old project has provoked a sometimes heated controversy between its critics and defenders.

"Creating a safer cigarette is an impossible goal -- it's like having a safe explosive," says John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health in Washington.

The USDA counters that a safe cigarette may be unrealistic, but a "safer" cigarette, one with fewer hazardous chemicals than today's cigarettes, is possible.

"People are going to smoke, and you might as well develop something that is safer," says Mike Hoback, confidential assistant to Dr. Orville Bentley, the assistant secretary of agriculture for science and education. "Any research aimed at increasing health is certainly good research."

The tobacco industry, which denies any scientific link between smoking and illness or death, neither criticizes nor supports the research.

"Certainly we would much rather see research than propaganda," says Anne Browder, assistant to the president of the Tobacco Institute in Washington. "Some smokers do contract certain diseases, but nonsmokers contract these diseases, and that leaves a big question. We don't know at present that tobacco is unsafe."

The wisdom of this quest for safer tobacco, which began in 1964 after the Surgeon General declared smoking hazardous, is hotly disputed. Some industry sources maintain that the government should conduct this research, while others believe that the tobacco industry ought to do the work. Still others say a safer cigarette can't be made and shouldn't be attempted.

Caught in the crossfire, USDA is proceeding with the project in seven laboratories in Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.

The $5.3 million the USDA spends annually to create a safer cigarette far exceeds the $3.5 million that the Department of Health and Human Services gives its Office of Smoking and Health to prepare the surgeon general's report and to disseminate information about smoking.

"I find it absurd to think we're putting more money into this nonsense of trying to produce what can't be produced -- a safer cigarette -- than we're spending to educate the public to stop smoking," says Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who sponsored anti-smoking bills that require the new warning labels on cigarette packs. "It's a waste of government money. I'm going to do whatever I can to stop this."

The funds allotted to tobacco research last year are less than 2 percent of the $428 million the Department of Agriculture spent on tobacco, according to Bob Tarczy, USDA agricultural economist. Tarczy says that in 1984 the agency loaned $347 million to tobacco farmers, interest-free, spent $58 million on crop insurance and spent the rest on various administrative expenses, including the "safe cigarette" research.

Critics of the research, however, are not appeased by its proportionally small budget.

"The government is spending too much in this area because it should be spending none at all," says Banzhaf, who is also a law professor at George Washington University. "This should be turned over to industry, which has at least as competent chemists, quite a bit more money, and fewer restraints."

Some opponents also argue the research is misleading.

"This continues to divert the public into thinking that cigarettes can be made safer -- that people can continue smoking and a better brand will come out next year," says David Neumeyer, associate director of Coalition on Smoking or Health in Washington. "And how do you quantify safer? Does that mean 300,000 instead of 350,000 deaths a year? We don't think there is such a thing as a safer cigarette."

"A safer cigarette is possible," says Dr. Edward Knipling, associate deputy administrator of Agricultural Research. "We don't think this research is a waste of money. We're quite confident that it's possible to achieve some modification of the tobacco plant."

"All research is unpredictable, but when it does pay off, it pays off big," says Dr. Donald De Jong, director of the USDA's laboratory in Beltsville, who explains the agency's research shifted from increasing crop productivity to exploring health and safety issues after the surgeon general's first smoking report. A safer cigarette could save thousands of lives and millions of dollars each year, says De Jong, who occasionally smokes a pipe. According to the most recent surgeon general's report, 350,000 deaths each year are caused by smoking. Experts estimate that smoking costs the American public $69 billion to $125 billion annually in health care, lost productivity and other expenses.

Hoback maintains that safer tobacco could also help the industry.

"Tobacco farming is big business," says Hoback. "You can't simply pull the rug out from an entire industry. The Department of Agriculture has some obligation to farmers."

But how can tobacco be made safer? According to USDA experts, safer tobacco would have lower quantities of known hazardous components than today's cigarettes.

"When I first started, I thought all we had to do was pick out a few compounds and get rid of them," says De Jong, a plant physiologist, who began tobacco research in 1968. He has since learned that it's not that easy, because little is known about the health effects of the 3,800 compounds already identified in tobacco smoke.

USDA hopes to use the techniques of genetic engineering to introduce what De Jong calls "useful" traits and eliminate destructive ones. For instance, tobacco plants might be created that contain fewer solanesols and sterols -- compounds associated with the creation of tumor-initiating hydrocarbons in cigarette smoke. Plants might also be developed that wouldn't require pesticides and other chemicals that pose added hazards to smokers.

Contrary to what many people might expect, De Jong is trying to lower levels of tar but not nicotine.

"You don't want to lower nicotine too much because people would then smoke more if they need that nicotine level," he says. According to recent findings in The New England Journal of Medicine, smokers compensate for lower nicotine yield through a variety of smoking methods that can negate the potential benefit of low-nicotine cigarettes.

How much progress has been made so far?

"We made significant strides with insect and disease resistant plants and understanding tobacco smoke," says Knipling, who notes that the agency has given up on efforts to develop tobacco as a protein source for Third World countries. "But in terms of genetic manipulation for reduced tar and nicotine, I don't think I can point out any significant breakthrough."

Opponents of safer tobacco research believe the USDA will never achieve that breakthrough.

"Reducing the tar and keeping the nicotine -- and I doubt that can be done -- is solving less than half the problem since nicotine is probably the key culprit in virtually all circulatory and heart diseases caused by smoking," says Banzhaf. According to the surgeon general's office, almost half of the 350,000 smoking-related deaths are a result of heart disease.

"After 21 years of this research, the USDA has nothing to show for it," says Neumeyer. "It's a wild and expensive goose chase."

Critics of the research maintain that ultimately taxpayers are subsidizing the tobacco industry.

"This is, in effect, product development, and these costs should be borne by industry, not by the American public," says Banzhaf. "The government has no business subsidizing, directly or indirectly, a deadly product. The role of government is to identify danger -- not to fix the product or to pay for the research to fix it."