On the Verve
New tobacco-free product adds to retailers' smokeless arsenal.
It’s no secret that cigarette sales are sliding, and not just in the convenience industry. With higher state and federal taxes and more cities and states going smoke-free in public areas, cigarettes have experienced a sharp decline in recent years.
“We’ve gone from 32 billion cigarette packs sold a year in 1986 down to 14 billion last year,” says Bill Godshall, founder and executive director of Pittsburgh-based Smokefree Pennsylvania.
Cigarettes’ decline doesn’t mean the tobacco category as a whole is doomed. Hardly. Second-quarter earnings reports showed Richmond, Va.-based Altria saw a 1.5% decline in cigarettes with a 7.6% increase in smokeless tobacco.
Considering the potential of smokeless products, companies are expanding portfolios beyond more traditional offerings such as snus and strips. While Altria has experimented with low-tobacco products similar to Reynolds’ Camel Sticks, Strips and Orbs, it upped its smokeless game by launching Verve, a non-dissolving, lozenge-shaped nicotine disc. Resembling a cough drop, a Verve disc releases nicotine for an estimated 15 minutes while users suck or chew on the product.
Announced in May, Verve has been testing in about 50 Sheetz sites in Virginia since mid-June.
“It hasn’t been in the market all that long; it’s a little premature to talk about how the product is doing,” says Altria spokesperson Brian May. “We introduced it into the market to get some learning from adult tobacco consumers about the acceptance of the product.”
It may indeed be too early to predict what kind of success Verve might have, but the amount of buzz surrounding such new types of tobacco products—as well as the many obstacles they could face—is worth examining.
Altria is certainly not the first company to test out a lozenge-like product, but Verve is no ordinary dissolvable.
“Unlike other smokeless tobacco products on the market, Verve contains no tobacco,” explains Michael Siegel, professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University of Public Health. “The nicotine is derived from tobacco, but essentially the product is not really a ‘tobacco’ product. It meets the legal definition of a tobacco product, but it delivers no tobacco. Thus, there is a qualitative difference in the expected health effects.”
This kind of tobacco-free product is just one option Altria is planning in response to a growing consumer interest.
“Adult smokers are probably interested in alternatives for a variety of reasons as varied as one smoker to another,” May says. “What our research does show is that 30% are interested in innovative spit-free tobacco product alternatives. Verve is just in limited distribution in Virginia in order to get learnings from adult smokers on the acceptability of the product. Our approach is spending a little to learn a lot.”
Siegel, who authors a tobacco news analysis and commentary blog, sees a more specific audience for tobacco-free products such as Verve. He explains this market “likely consists of smokers who are concerned about their health and looking to quit or cut down on the amount they smoke, but have not been successful or do not think they would be successful with traditional pharmaceutical products like NRT (nicotine reduction therapy) or Varenicline (Chantix).”
This market appeal has harm-reduction enthusiasts Siegel and Godshall very excited about the potential benefits of Verve.
“These products might help smokers quit or significantly cut down on the amount that they smoke,” Siegel says. “Consumers could do this in a way that greatly reduces health risks, since [Verve discs] contain no tobacco.”
The ‘Tobacco-Free’ Obstacle
Not everyone shares Siegel’s zeal over Verve’s potential benefits for current smokers. Ironically, one of the loudest complaints about this tobacco-free product has come from The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
“It was inevitable that products like this would be produced,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Washington, D.C.-based organization, in a statement. “But it also makes it far more urgent that FDA close the loophole. In the absence of FDA review of the contents of the product, the American public is essentially being asked to be human guinea pigs.”
Such opposition comes as no surprise to Godshall. Earlier in his career, Godshall spearheaded many successful smoke-free campaigns and was an early advocate for higher cigarette taxes. But now he finds himself at odds with the majority of anti-tobacco groups on the issue of smokeless and reduced-harm products.
“Anti-tobacco organizations in this country have a policy of being against dual usage,” he says. “Their attitude is abstinence only: that the usage of any product is the same as using cigarettes.”
Godshall believes the evidence proves otherwise, estimating that smokeless tobacco is attributable to only 50 to 100 deaths a year in the United States, making such products “99% less hazardous than cigarettes.”
“Anti-smoking groups are already having fits about Camel Orbs, arguing that these products are going to attract children,” agrees Siegel, saying there is no current evidence to support such a claim. “The idea of harm reduction is simply not one that is widely accepted in the anti-smoking movement today.”
For its part, Altria is taking steps to ensure that Verve discs do not end up in the hands of anyone under the age of 18.
“Our retail contracts require that Verve discs be sold only to adults of legal age to purchase tobacco products in clerk-assisted transactions,” May says. “It’s merchandised in a non-self-serve manner. If a consumer is interested in Verve, they’ll need to show proof of age and the clerk will give them the product off the selling fixture, which is behind the counter.”
Additionally, Verve is packaged in child-resistant containers, which contain a “keep out of reach of children” disclaimer.
And while such measures may not convince Tobacco-Free Kids, Siegel applauds the effort and hopes the government will step in to further ensure such products stay out of young hands.
“These are appropriate steps,” says Siegel. “When the FDA issues regulations to cover these products, those regulations will certainly have provisions to help ensure that they do not get into the hands of minors.”
The FDA Conundrum
Of course, the FDA has not yet issued any special regulations for tobacco-free products such as Verve—which could pose a formidable challenge.
“The biggest obstacle is that the companies may not be able to communicate the lower risks of the product because these would represent modified-risk claims, and may not be allowed by the FDA,” Siegel says.
Indeed, Altria has never claimed that Verve discs are less harmful than cigarettes.
“We’re not making any reduced-risk claims about this product,” May says. “The FDA has not stated that one product poses less risk than another. If adult tobacco consumers are concerned about the health risks of tobacco use, the best thing they could do is quit.”
Still, Verve contains no tobacco and about 1.5 milligrams of nicotine, less than many other smokeless products and significantly less than cigarettes. Medical experts such as Siegel recognize that this information clearly suggests a less harmful product.
“I hope that the FDA will promulgate regulations that make it feasible for companies to make reduced-risk claims, without having to go through the almost insurmountable tasks required by Section 911,” says Siegel.
Part of The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, Section 911 is summarized on the FDA website as stating “no person may introduce or deliver for introduction into interstate commerce any modified-risk tobacco product unless an order issued … is effective with respect to such product.”
“The problem is that if Section 911 is applied, then Altria would have to show that when marketed as a reduced-exposure product, smokers do not think Verve is safer than cigarettes,” Siegel says. “This is going to be nearly impossible, because the public will realize that if it contains no tobacco, it has to be safer than cigarettes. Hopefully, the FDA will not apply that section to this category of products but will make provisions for a less stringent pathway to make these truthful claims.”
Despite the challenges posed by anti-tobacco groups and FDA regulations, Godshall is optimistic that products such as Verve can still be successfully marketed to the public.
“Even though they can’t say these products are less hazardous, they can still advertise and urge smokers to quit,” he says, citing a successful New Year’s Camel Snus campaign encouraging smokers to resolve to quit. “We’re winning in the real world of public health. People are switching from cigarettes to these less harmful products, and they’ll continue to.”
Whether or not Verve takes off, May is certain that such inventive alternative products are something Altria will continue to pursue in the future: “Innovation overall is something we see as an important driver of growth for our businesses as adult tobacco consumers’ preferences and the regulatory environment continue to evolve.”