2013's Biggest Tobacco Stories

CSP's tobacco editor counts down the five most newsworthy moments of the year

Melissa Vonder Haar, Freelance Writer

Mitch Zeller

Mitch Zeller at the 2013 NATO Show

NEW YORK -- If there's one thing you can say about the tobacco category, it's that it's never boring, and 2013 was no exception. Here are five of the biggest news stories from this past year (in order of date):

1. Zeller In, Deyton Out

In a move that surprised many, Dr. Lawrence Deyton stepped down in February as director of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products (CTP). The departure of Deyton--who served as the CTP's director since its creation in 2009--meant the arrival of Mitchell Zeller as the government's new tobacco head. Less than two months on the job, Zeller spoke at the 2013 NATO Show, promising the retailers and suppliers in attendance that he would be a man of action when it came to the issues of substantial equivalence, menthol and deeming (read the full story here)

"As we begin to rule on the decisions on what is substantial equivalent, what isn't substantial equivalent, they'll be a lot more clarity and transparency to the process," he said. "Menthol and deeming, when we eventually announce what we're going to do, will be more straightforward because it's more policy focused than individual applications, like with substantial equivalents."

2. CDC's Stimulus No-No

Lately, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Thomas Frieden has been taking some heat for extreme statements on electronic cigarettes and minors--but in March, it was the Inspector General who wasn't happy with the CDC's actions. Some $650 million from The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was earmarked to carry out clinical and community-based prevention and wellness strategies, with the CDC overseeing the allocation of such funds to tobacco and obesity-related community incentives. So what prompted the Inspector General to send Frieden an "Early Alert" warning? This money may have been used to support anti-tobacco lobbying efforts--something that's prohibited by federal law.

Turns out, it wasn't just the Inspector General, CSP and NATO questioning the CDC's spending: in May, Cause of Action, a government accountability organization, released the results of a 19-month investigation of how CPPW funds have been misused. (read the full story here). According to a press release, the report exposed an "endemic lack of oversight and accountability within the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) and the CDC, which led to the misuse of millions of taxpayer dollars by eight recipients of grants from the Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) program."

3. Big Electronic.

For almost a year, Lorillard was the sole Big Tobacco representative in the electronic cigarette market (with its acquisition of blu in April 2012). Though it was widely accepted that Reynolds and Altria would also enter the segment, nobody knew when or how. This year, we got answers.

Though Reynold's Vuse technically entered test markets in late last year, 2013 was the first time most of us got a look at the company's proprietary digital cigarette. In June, the company officially announced a July 1 roll-out of Vuse in Colorado. Since then, Vuse has achieved a roughly 62% market share in Colorado, with 72% of sales coming from cartridges, indicating repeat purchases. The product has done so well in Colorado, that Reynolds will expand into Utah in January and plans to go national by mid-2014.

As the final Big Tobacco company to announce e-cig intentions, many speculated that Altria would look to acquire an existing company – but on June 11, the Richmond, Va.-based company announced the launch of its MarkTen electronic cigarette brand. Limited distribution of MarkTen began in select Indiana markets last August, though the company has declined to comment on if or when it plans to expand the brand.

4.  Substantial Moves?

About two months after speaking at the NATO Show, Zeller made good on his vow to tackle the substantial equivalence issue: In late June, Lorillard Tobacco Co.'s Newport Non-Menthol Gold Box 100s and Newport Non-Menthol Gold Box became the first new products approved via the substantial equivalence (SE) pathway since the Family Smoking Prevention & Tobacco Control Act of 2009 gave the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products.

Sure, we still haven't had too much clarity on menthol and deeming--although the FDA extended the comment period on menthol and the announcement of deeming regulations were reportedly held up by the government shutdown. And yes, there are still thousands of SE applications awaiting their fate. But we've had nine substantial equivalence approvals in 2013, nine times the approvals we've had since 2009. That has to count for something.

5. Entering a New Age. 

It began with New York City: On April 22, the New York City Council announced its intention to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21. The measure passed and Mayor Bloomberg signed the bill into law on November 19, making it the first major city with a minimum purchasing age older than 19.

But New York probably won't be alone for long: Chicago, New York State and New Jersey have all introduced similar legislation to raise the minimum age to 21 and the FDA's CTP has plans to submit a report to Congress on the effects of raising the minimum age on a national level. Meaning 2013 could mark the beginning of the end of the "Must be 18 to Purchase" age.