Altria Set to Launch Tobacco-Less Nicotine Disc

Will begin selling Verve in 50 stores in Virginia in early June

RICHMOND, Va. -- Altria Group Inc. is moving into uncharted territory: the tobacco-less nicotine product. The tobacco company is expected to launch a nondissolving, lozenge-shaped nicotine disc called Verve, the industry's latest foray into experimental smokeless products, reported The Wall Street Journal.

Unlike the smokeless products sold by Altria and Reynolds American Inc., Verve won't contain tobacco. Instead, the chewable, mint-flavored disc will provide nicotine extracted from tobacco, said the report.

A Verve disc, which resembles a cough drop, releases nicotine over approximately 15 minutes as a user sucks or chews on it. It does not require spitting to avoid swallowing tobacco. But the disc of cellulose fibers and a polymer also does not dissolve, so users will have to throw it away after use.

The new product will be sold in a package of 16 discs, each containing about 1.5 milligrams of nicotine, less than many other smokeless products contain.

Altria plans to begin selling Verve in more than 50 stores in Virginia by early June, the report said, but it has not decided whether to roll out the product nationally. It will sell for about $3 in stores in Virginia, where a pack of 20 Marlboro cigarettes retails for around $4.50. The product will be sold to adults only.

Richmond, Va.-based Altria is betting that approach will permit it to market the product with milder health-warning labels than those affixed to cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

Government-mandated labels on mainstream smokeless tobacco products such as moist snuff and chewing tobacco highlight the risks of cancer, tooth decay and gum disease, warning consumers, "This is not a safe alternative to cigarettes."

Smokeless products represent less than one-tenth of tobacco-industry sales, according to the Journal, but they are an increasingly important battleground. The smokeless category is growing at about 7% annually, while U.S. cigarette volume has been contracting at roughly 4% a year.

Altria, the largest U.S. tobacco company by sales, has an approximately 55% share of the smokeless-product market based on its Copenhagen and Skoal moist snuff brands, the report said; Reynolds, the maker of Grizzly moist snuff, controls about a third of the country's smokeless market.

In recent years, big tobacco companies have marketed alternative smokeless products such as snus, a spit-less tobacco pouch, and dissolvable tobacco "sticks,'' "strips'' and "orbs'' that also don't require spitting.

"I don't think anyone's found the magic smoke-free product,'' John R. Nelson, Altria's chief technology officer, told the newspaper.

Altria said it has shared its new product plans with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). The government agency confirmed it had been contacted by Altria, but declined to comment to the Journal on how it might regulate such a product.

Altria will include a warning label on the new product, said the report, telling consumers that nicotine can increase "heart rate, blood pressure and aggravate diabetes.''

The label will also warn nicotine "can harm your baby if you are pregnant or nursing'' and "cause dizziness, nausea and stomach pain.''