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

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

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

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

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.