Source: Los Angeles Times

By: Julie Wernau

Ron Carroll prefers to smoke cigars and pipes. But when he can’t do that he says he manages to unobtrusively get his nicotine fix by slipping a packet of tobacco, about the size of a teabag, under his upper lip.

“I use it all the time — movies, planes,” said the Chicagoan, who adds that he likes the fact he can remove the packet as easily as a piece of gum. There’s no chewing, spitting or mess, he says.

“It’s discreet, and you don’t look like an addict, he said. “Smoking’s definitely more about the flavor; the whole experience,” Carroll said. “With this, it’s just taking the edge off.”

Cigarette sales by volume have plummeted 17 percent from 2005, partly the result of health warnings and bans on smoking in public places as well as taxation by local and federal governments. And the heat on cigarette smokers is expected to intensify as the federal Food and Drug Administration requires images of corpses and diseased lungs to be featured on cigarette packs in two years.

Smokeless tobacco products — which come in shapes ranging from toothpicks to orbs and in flavors from cherry to peach — so far have not met with the same intense scrutiny, although there have been some changes. In June, the FDA increased the size of warning labels on smokeless products. “This product is addictive” and “This product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes,” say the warnings.

Scientists say that overall, smokeless tobacco products are less harmful than cigarettes, in large part because of a reduced risk of lung cancer. But medical experts agree that quitting tobacco altogether is the best alternative.

The FDA won’t report to the Secretary of Health and Human Services until 2012 on whether such products pose a threat to adolescents and children.

In a letter to tobacco-maker R.J. Reynolds in February, Lawrence Dayton, director for the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, expressed concern that the Camel dissolvables line — which includes tobacco strips that dissolve in the mouth, sticks that resemble toothpicks and orbs that look like hard candy — could be appealing to children and adolescents.

“Absolutely none of us, no one, wants kids to smoke or to use tobacco products,” said Todd Holbrook, senior director of marketing for Camel Snus, at Reynolds.

Sherry Emery, senior scientist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has conducted focus groups on smoking products and said smoking tends to appeal to young people because it is visible, not because it is invisible. “Smoking is still very much a social behavior,” she said. “Smokeless tobacco is not social; the idea is to conceal it.”

While smokeless products represented just 6 percent of all tobacco sales in 2009, the market is growing at a rate of about 7 percent a year. Sales of smokeless tobacco products in 2010 are expected to total about $4.8 billion, according to Chicago-based Morningstar, which calculated that figure based on a year-over-year growth rate of 7 percent.

One of the reasons for the uptick is that “now you can consume products without anybody else being aware of it,” said Phil Gorham, a Morningstar analyst who follows the tobacco industry. He also said economic factors are driving people to quit or to switch to smokeless products. “We’ve had a big tax increase both on the federal and state level on cigarettes, and it’s becoming more expensive to smoke in some states,” he said.

At one retailer in Chicago, a pack of Marlboro was $10, with state, county and city excise taxes included, whereas a can of premium Swedish snus was $5.27 after taxes.

Gorham also said the growing array of smokeless tobacco products also has helped grow the market. “Going back a few years, smokeless products — all there really was the moist tobacco products that baseball players used, where you had to spit out the juice,” he said.

For the first time, viable alternatives exist, said Jason Healy, who founded an electronic cigarette company called Blu Cigs in 2009 in response to what he said has been a movement to treat smokers like “lepers.”

“Everyone’s been looking for the Holy Grail that allows you to smoke without everything that everyone’s concerned about,” Healy said.

Big Tobacco has taken notice. Between 2006 and 2009, the country’s two largest tobacco companies by market share — Altria Group and Reynolds American Inc. — acquired smokeless tobacco companies that together give them about 90 percent of the U.S. market share in that category.

The tobacco companies have begun branding smokeless products with traditional cigarette brand names such as Marlboro and Camel to lure disenfranchised smokers.

“Use of a well-defined brand name is more likely to make a smoker consider trying a category they’ve never tried before,” said Maura Payne, spokeswoman for Reynolds American, which began testing in certain markets Camel brand tobacco products that dissolve like hard candy.

In 2009, Altria Group’s Marlboro Snus and Reynolds’ Camel Snus made the national scene. Snus comes in small tea-bag like sachets that are placed in the mouth but don’t need to be chewed for the user to absorb the nicotine. Snus is pasteurized and refrigerated instead of fermented, a process that significantly lowers the levels of carcinogens that lead to mouth cancers.

The Snus market saw 28 percent year-over-year growth by volume in 2009, according to Euromonitor.

Chuck Levy, owner of Iwan Ries & Co., a fifth-generation family-owned tobacco purveyor at Wabash and Madison that’s home to one of the city’s only surviving legal smoking lounges, said he used to carry Marlboro and Camel Snus. But he said they didn’t sell as well as General Snus, a popular Swedish brand.

“We sell it to young people, old people. They come in suits as well as jeans,” he said.

With smoking bans in place, Levy said, many are looking for a replacement that can also give them the oral sensation they get from smoking.

Smokeless products also help adhere to smoking policies. Douglas Luke, director of the Center for Tobacco Policy Research at Washington University in St. Louis, said, “The smoke-free policies tend to be around protecting people from exposure to secondhand smoke. So, since smokeless products don’t have that, the gold standards are silent on that.”

Dr. Frank Leone, director of the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center’s Comprehensive Smoking Treatment Program, said smoke-free alternatives to cigarettes are a way for cigarette smokers to prolong their addiction to nicotine. It’s what he calls the “compromise position” — not as healthy as quitting, but not as unhealthy as smoking.

“It’s much more likely that people will find and seek out that compromise position than stop altogether,” he said.

While Leone said smokeless tobacco products are less harmful than cigarettes, that advantage may be done-in by the frequency of use. That’s because some smokers who have cut back because of smoking bans, may be consuming smokeless tobacco all day long, between cigarettes.

Traditional chewing tobacco has been shown to cause mouth, tongue, lip, jaw and even bladder cancers, said Leone. And like cigarettes, smokeless tobacco use can lead to a host of cardiovascular diseases although to a lesser extent, he said. While several studies show a decreased risk of cancer for those who use Snus over traditional fermented tobacco, little is known about its cardiovascular effects, he said.

Adam Johnson said he could smoke 50 hours a week if he wasn’t careful. Usually a pipe smoker, Johnson uses Snus packets throughout the day, he says, to stop himself from smoking too much.

“With (smoking) tobacco, I say I’m doing it for the flavor. This is — you can get a dose of nicotine while you’re helping a customer who doesn’t smoke, and they won’t even know it,” said Johnson.

Reynolds’ Holbrook said consumers are moving to smokeless because it offers freedom and choice that cigarettes can no longer offer.

“They’re looking for options where they can continue to enjoy tobacco on their terms, and they have control of the situation. They want tobacco that can be enjoyed at a bar or a nightclub,” he said.

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