Tobacco candy | A new product called Camel Orbs, being test marketed in Portland, raises concern

Parents have been worrying for years about their youngsters being lured into the smoking habit by tobacco company come-ons, or even by hanging out where they breathe in secondhand smoke that can cause lung cancer just as if they were lighting up themselves.

Many heaved a sigh of relief when the tobacco giants no longer found their advertising welcome in many newspapers and magazines or on television and radio. They felt even more relaxed when states and municipalities started passing no-smoking ordinances in public spaces, restaurants, bars and office buildings.

But wait. Now, parents face a new worry about the younger set getting hooked on nicotine through — believe it or not — candy.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, second in cigarette production in the United States to the Philip Morris Company, has been marketing a new product called Camel Orbs in three U.S. cities. One of those is right here in Oregon: The Portland area is a test market, along with Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis.

Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said people’s jaws drop every time he pulls out a pack of Orbs. He said Orbs are made of finely ground tobacco laced with cinnamon or mint and encased in a candy coating. They come in a pocket-size plastic container reminiscent of the popular Tic Tac breath mints box, but it’s cooler-looking and decorated with Reynolds’ iconic camel, Merkley said.

“It’s actually shaped like a cell phone, so parents or teachers won’t figure out what kids have in their pockets,” Merkley said. “If they have a round can of chewing tobacco, they’re going to get nailed. But these don’t draw attention. Everything about this product is designed to appeal to kids.”

Well, sometimes adults too, he acknowledged.

“I had a package of them in the house, and my wife walked in one day and started opening it up, thinking it was breath mints. My son was appalled. He knew what it was.”

Merkley has taken aim at the new products in a couple of ways.

When Congress passed House Resolution 1256 last June, giving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority for the first time over all tobacco products, Merkley succeeded in co-sponsoring an amendment requiring the agency to put a thorough research study of the new dissolvable products “on a fast track.”

“Of course, I was intending that a ‘fast track’ should be about four months. But unfortunately, to the FDA, it’s about two years,” he said.

His end goal, after the FDA research is finished, will be to see products such as Camel Orbs banned altogether, Merkley said.

“Of course, the tobacco companies say these products are just an alternative that’s healthier than cigarettes, that helps people quit smoking. But that’s not so. It’s just a diabolical marketing strategy.”