Hey, Buddy, Can I Bum a Snus Off You?

Philip Morris, RJR Test Tobacco Pouches as Smokers Feel Pinch of Taxes, New Laws

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Faced with rising taxes for cigarettes -- in New York the price of a pack hit $9 -- and ever-tightening smoking bans in places such as Los Angeles, where a bill threatens to force smokers out of all outdoor eating areas, Big Tobacco is trying a new approach to keep America's dwindling 45 million smokers in the fold.
Snus release: Reynolds recently expanded its test of three Camel Snus.
Snus release: Reynolds recently expanded its test of three Camel Snus.

The solution: snus (they are always curiously plural), a pinch of steam-cured tobacco nestled in a tiny tea-bag-like pouch. Snus don't need to be spit out like traditional fermented dipping tobacco; they simply remain under your upper lip until you've gotten your nicotine fix.

U.S. Smokeless Tobacco is testing Skoal Dry, a snus version of its moist, fermented Skoal dipping tobacco. Spokesman Andrew Lee said the company was encouraged to find out that some 6 million of America's smokers have tried smokeless tobacco, and fully half of all smokers -- more than 22 million -- have expressed an interest in finding a smokeless-tobacco alternative.

But given that pending legislation takes aim at flavored cigarettes, tobacco companies might need to be worried about snus, too. Both the House and Senate versions of a bill to give the Food and Drug Administration jurisdiction over tobacco contain a rule to eliminate flavored cigarettes. The legislation would also give the FDA authority over smokeless tobacco. But there are no references to snus, which are being test-marketed in various parts of the country.

R.J. Reynolds just expanded its three flavors of Camel Snus -- original, frost and spice -- into more test markets last month: New York, Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Last August, four flavors of Philip Morris' Marlboro Snus -- rich, mild, mint and spice -- arrived in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, after a less-than-spectacular non-Marlboro version of snus called Taboka made its debut in Indianapolis.

Supporting legislation
There are 28 federal trademark applications for snus in different stages of approval, all of which could be used to market snus in ways other than explicitly touting their flavors. For example, Philip Morris appears to be prepared if Marlboro Snus Spice, for which a trademark is pending, is deep-sixed by the FDA: It has also applied for more-generic but still evocative trademarks such "Marlboro Snus Snug Gold." Philip Morris declined to comment on the trademarks.

The company supports the federal legislation, and the reasons it gives have a lot to do with staying in business even after "lit-end" products, as cigarettes are known in tobacco speak, become less and less popular. "We believe that such tough but reasonable federal regulation can benefit shareholders and other stakeholders by ensuring that all tobacco manufacturers and importers doing business in the U.S. operate at the same high standards; by providing a framework for the further pursuit of tobacco product alternatives that are less harmful than conventional cigarettes; and by ensuring transparent, accurate communication about tobacco products to consumers," said Philip Morris spokesman David Sutton.

His reference to a "pursuit of tobacco products less harmful than conventional cigarettes" could well refer to snus. According to the American Cancer Society and the medical journal Lancet, if every smoker in America were to switch to snus, substantial reductions in heart disease and certain cancers would be evident in a decade's time (though the Cancer Society notes on its website, "smokers who delay quitting by using smokeless products while continuing to smoke increase their risk of lung cancer").

And that may be exactly why Philip Morris wants the FDA to have oversight: With few avenues left in which to market Marlboro Snus -- other than direct mail to its database of smokers or promotional coupons on packs of Marlboros -- the world's largest tobacco company would much rather have the halo of FDA approval on health claims about Snus.

RJR, meanwhile, opposes the legislation. Spokesman David Howard said Philip Morris likely favors it only because it could cement its position as the top brand. "If you take away all the communication about what makes our products better ... that just benefits the market leader," he said.
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