Senate, Merkley critical of nicotine-rich tobacco product that tastes like candy

Senate, Merkley critical of nicotine-rich tobacco product that tastes like candy

By:  Charles Pope

WASHINGTON -- Twelve years after Joe Camel's forced retirement for luring children into a life of smoking, Congress is confronting another slickly advertised threat that some lawmakers and public health officials say is even more worrisome -- tobacco that dissolves in the mouth and tastes like candy.

"The future of the industry is not in cigarettes," Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said last week. "It's in smokeless tobacco that will addict our children. This product should not be on the grocery shelves of America."

The reason is as clear to Merkley as the containers that hold Camel Orbs and similar products that are tablets the size of breath mints with up to three times the nicotine dose as a cigarette. The new products are made from finely milled tobacco, mint and caramel flavorings and food-grade binders that dissolve completely -- and quickly -- while delivering high doses of nicotine.

Some come in brightly colored containers that mimic packaging for candy. Others come in containers shaped like cell phones.

"They're cool little dispensers that work like a Pez dispenser," Merkley said as a Senate committee was considering legislation to give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco, restrict advertising and even limit the amount of nicotine in tobacco products.

The bill, which was approved by a Senate committee last week, would also require tobacco companies to register their products and provide a complete list of ingredients to the FDA. The agency would then have the authority to limit or remove ingredients it considers dangerous to health. It would not have the authority, however, to require all nicotine be removed.

The products are coupled with a polished advertising campaign that Merkley and his allies in the Senate believe targets children.

"Congress has a responsibility to ensure that children are not the victims of suggestive -- let's call it 'addictive' -- marketing by tobacco companies," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said. "It has an equal responsibility to ensure that citizens are protected from dangerous chemicals and are aware of all the risks associated with smoking."

Welcome to the front lines of the latest battle in the never-ending nicotine wars.

This time the battle is closer to Oregon.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco is test marketing a new line of what the company calls "non-combustible" tobacco in stores across the state as well as in Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis. The company plans to offer nicotine orbs, strips and toothpicks nationwide by the end of the year.

Unlike cigarettes, sales of smokeless tobacco products are growing. Cigarettes are in decline not only because of anti-tobacco health campaigns and higher costs but also because an estimated 400,000 smokers die each year in the United States.

Reynolds spokesman Dave Howard said Orbs and other smokeless tobacco are safer than cigarettes, though he conceded they carry serious health risks. Like cigarettes, smokeless products must carry warning labels and cannot be sold to anyone under age 18. Merkley and other critics see Orbs as "a gateway drug" that hooks kids to nicotine and later turns them into smokers.

Brown said the new smokeless products have a central role in the tobacco industry's strategy for survival.

Their goal, he said, "is to replace the 400,000 customers that tobacco companies lose each year due to tobacco-related illnesses and deaths. And what better potential customers to target than children, who are all too often unaware of the harmful and addictive nature of tobacco when they smoke their first cigarette or ingest their first smokeless tobacco product."

Merkley and Brown offered language to the tobacco bill requiring the FDA to study the health impact of the new products and compile a list of ingredients. Merkley, who asked that the study be expedited, believes it will provide the basis for tougher regulation in the future.

Public health officials say regulation can't come soon enough.

"This is a product that has packaging designed to allow kids to hide its use, and because it's dissolvable, it doesn't require them to spit. Kids can sneak it into school. This is the kind of innovation the world doesn't need," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

The rhetoric can get a bit heated. In the same hearing, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders lashed out at marketers for the products. "People in the United States of America who are being paid to attract young people into smoking are not much different than someone selling heroin," he said.

That drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., whose state is the largest tobacco producer in the country. "It's easy to paint all manufacturers with the same brush," he said.

Some of the dynamics have changed. Unlike a decade ago, when CEOs from seven tobacco companies famously swore under oath that they did not believe nicotine was addictive, today the industry says it could accept some federal regulation and that the companies work aggressively to keep their products out of the hands of anyone under age 18.

"We would support additional reasonable regulation," said Reynolds spokesman Howard.