Total Tobacco' vs. 'Tobacco Free'

Smokeless products becoming target of health-advocacy groups

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- In bars and restaurants, theaters and stadiums, malls and offices, tobacco manufacturers are trying to reassert their presence in the market with innovative smokeless products such as snus and dissolvable products. "We're meeting the adult tobacco consumer where they are in society today," Maura Payne, a spokesperson for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., told The Winston-Salem Journal. But health-advocacy groups, having won the day with bans on smoking in most public venues, are gearing up their efforts to try to prevent those products from taking root.

"[image-nocss] These smokeless products are likely to discourage smokers from quitting by sustaining their nicotine addiction in the growing number of places where smoking is not allowed," Matthew Myers, the executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told the newspaper.

There have been mixed findings from the few studies that have been conducted on snus, the report said. What is clear is that the major U.S. tobacco manufacturers are putting more emphasis on smokeless products, such as snuff and snus, to gain market share and sales as the smoking rate among adults declines.

Government figures sited by the paper show that fewer than 44 million Americans smoke, down from a peak of 53.5 million in 1983.

On the front lines of the migration to smokeless products: Innovations from Reynolds, such as Camel Snus, a spitless product, and dissolvable Camel products that feature a pellet, a twisted stick and a film strip for the tongue. Reynolds is taking Camel Snus nationwide by late January, and the other products will enter test markets in 2009. Philip Morris is testing Marlboro Snus.

"Consumer research has found that adult tobacco consumers have wanted another option for using tobacco where it wasn't comfortable or they weren't permitted to smoke," Payne said.

Snus products make up less than 1% of all smokeless tobacco sales, Bill Godshall, the executive director of SmokeFree Pennsylvania, told the paper. Godshall said he supports smokeless products as a tool for reducing smoking, but acknowledges they are not a risk-free alternative.

Payne said that Reynolds does not promote the new smokeless products as a means to cessation.

"These new products pose serious threats to the nation's health," Myers said. "They are likely to appeal to children because they are flavored and packaged like candy, are easy to conceal even in a classroom and carry the Camel brand that is already so popular with underage smokers."

There is potential for a long battle over smokeless tobacco's place in the market and society, said Stephen Pope, the chief global-market strategist with Cantor Fitzgerald Europe. "Snus is fighting for a very specific sector, and it takes time for people to accept the concept," he told the Journal. "I do see the customer base being hard to please. There is an interaction, an activity with a cigarette that one just does not attain with a small pouch of tobacco."

Of the top 10 states for moist snuff use in the third quarter of 2007, Pennsylvania (No. 2), Ohio (No. 3) and California (No. 10) were the only non-Southern states. Texas was first, and North Carolina was seventh, according to the report.

In recent years, smokeless products have become more much subtle by use and by design. "Will all adult tobacco smokers switch to these smokeless products? We don't know," David Howard, a spokesperson for Reynolds, told the paper. "We believe they should be educated to their tobacco options."

But Susan Ivey, the chairperson and CEO of Reynolds American, said that the company has to be at the forefront of innovative smokeless products as a "total tobacco company." "As leaders in tobacco-industry innovation, our companies are particularly well-suited to identify and create new opportunities for long-term growth," she told the Journal.

"Just like there is no safe cigarette, there is no safe tobacco product," Melva Fager Okun, the senior manager for N.C. Prevention Partners, told the paper. "Spit tobacco and other smokeless products are harmful to your health and can cause cancer in the mouth and jaw and other illnesses. These diseases are painful, disfiguring and very expensive to treat."

Godshall said that the anti-tobacco groups "are trying to deny people the opportunity to use a legal product, a product with less risk than cigarettes, a product in which there is no one else can be harmed by its use. They want tobacco-free laws rather than no-smoking laws."

Analysts have said that tobacco manufacturers are moving quickly to introduce new smokeless products out of expectation that FDA regulation would make that more challenging, if not prohibitive. "While it is likely that a bill may be taken up again in the new Congress, we have no way to predict timing of that," Payne said. "So we have pursued product development and testing on these tobacco products independent of that issue."

Brad Rodu, the chairman of the Tobacco Harm Reduction Research University at the University of Louisville, has been advocating implementation of tobacco harm-reduction products for 15 years. His research is supported by unrestricted grants from smokeless tobacco manufacturers UST and Swedish Match to the University of Louisville, and by the Kentucky Research Challenge Trust Fund. "All smokeless products in the United States, including the new line from Reynolds, confer only about 1% to 2% of the health risks of smoking," he told the paper. "The development and marketing of vastly safer smokeless-tobacco products that appeal to adult cigarette smokers has the potential to transform tobacco use from a highly risky behavior to one that is as safe as consuming coffee."

Dr. John Spangler, the director of the Tobacco Intervention program at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, sharply disagrees. He told the Journal that his studies show that "smokeless tobacco acts as a gateway to smoking.... Smokeless tobacco, at best, partially substitutes for cigarettes and does not help with cessation, but does induce initiation."

Dr. Michael Thun, the vice president of epidemiology and surveillance research, said that the debate about smokeless tobacco products "has been complicated by the fact that some credible independent scientists have accepted the idea that because smokeless products are less lethal than smoking, they must therefore be useful in reducing the disease burden from smoking. This idea is simplistic," he told the paper. "We are at risk of repeating the mistakes that contributed to the fiasco of 'light' and 'low-yield' cigarettes."

Pat Shehan, the owner of Tarheel Tobacco in Winston-Salem, said he believes that there is potential for smokeless if Reynolds and other manufacturers can get the word out to tobacco consumers. "The anti-smoking groups have won the battle on secondhand smoke, and that is a good thing for society," Shehan told the paper. "But I don't think it's any of their business if people use smokeless-tobacco products, particularly if it helps to reduce the amount of secondhand smoke. This is one issue where I believe those groups need to butt out and let people use a legal product if they want to."