B&W smoke boasts fewer toxins

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After decades of denying cigarettes are harmful, at least one Big Tobacco company is acknowledging its products are toxic-by introducing one that's less so. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. today introduces into 1,500 Indianapolis-area stores Advance, a cigarette touted as having less-toxic tobacco and a special toxin-reducing filter.

But the brand's ad tagline, "All of the taste...less of the toxins" could be an unwelcome reminder for smokers. "People are aware of the fact that when they purchase cigarettes, there are significant adverse health consequences, but it doesn't seem to be a winning proposition to remind them every time they see it," said Rob Campagnino, senior tobacco analyst at Prudential Securities.

B&W, however, thinks it's the simplest way to get the message across. "It seems to be the clearest and most impactful statement we could make of the facts that are behind Advance and the product itself. We did not want to get into the polysyllabic chemical names and toxins," said Paul Wessel, divisional VP of value-for-money, premium-niche and new products at British American Tobacco's B&W. Those complicated chemical names are listed in literature attached to every pack of Advance, showing the 20% to 80% reduction in various toxins.

Even so, B&W maintains its new smoke, while less toxic, is not safer. Ads and packaging include the warning: "There is no such thing as a safer cigarette, nor is there enough available medical information to know if Advance with less toxins will lower health risks."

Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, thinks consumers will assume safety despite the warnings. "It's always a good thing to remove a known carcinogen from cigarettes, but it is irresponsible to make statements in marketing that will lead consumers to believe that the product is safer," he said. "And that's exactly what happens when a manufacturer touts a product as having fewer toxins, no matter how many disclaimers they put on it."

B&W is not the first to market Advance, which will sell for the same as a premium cigarette such as Lucky Strike. Last fall, Star Scientific, with which B&W co-developed Advance as the first cigarette made with tobacco cured specially to decrease tobacco-specific nitrosamines, test marketed Advance in Richmond, Va., and Lexington, Ky. In April, Star sold rights for the brand to B&W. Marketing support includes in-store, direct mail, newspaper and magazine ads running in Indianapolis editions of magazines including Newsweek, Better Homes & Gardens and People. Ads feature a picture of a man or a woman's eye, using both sexes to appeal to a broad consumer base, and the headline: "New Advance. A step in the right direction." Fitzmaurice, Lewis & Partners, Louisville, Ky., handles.

Rivals taking similar steps have tripped along the way. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Eclipse, which heats instead of burns tobacco and produces less smoke, ash and odors, was launched in 1996 without any health claims. It was relaunched in 2000 after scientific testing, attaching the claim that Eclipse may present less risk of cancer, chronic bronchitis and possibly emphysema. But Eclipse-like Philip Morris Cos.' tobacco-heating smoking "system" Accord, which requires a special cigarette contraption to produce less smoke, ash and odor-hasn't made much progress. Both remain in test markets, in Dallas-Forth Worth, and Richmond, Va., respectively.

Yet B&W, sticking to the claim that there's no such thing as a safe cigarette, is committed to Advance. "It delivers all the taste that people get in a normal cigarette-not an Eclipse or an Accord," Mr. Wessel said. In that, it may get fresh competition from Philip Morris, which a spokesman said is planning to "develop and launch a conventional cigarette with a significant reduction in potentially harmful smoke constituents."

The question is whether B&W, unlike its rivals, will gain enough consumer support to roll out the brand nationally. Mr. Campagnino, for one, doubts Advance will be a market mover. "I think it will get a fairly decent initial trial, but beyond that I think it will be an niche product without significant market share."

David Adelman, an analyst at Morgan Stanley, thinks Advance's closer similarity to a conventional cigarette gives it an advantage over Eclipse and Accord, but said brand-loyal smokers are a tough target. "Cigarette smokers are risk-takers. If they're truly concerned about health, they quit."

Although the launch of Advance might not be a moneymaker for B&W, in a distant third place behind PM and RJR, "there may be something beyond a dollars-and-cents motive that has an overall, broader strategic value that may make sense," Mr. Campagnino said, adding that tobacco companies-frequently finding themselves in courtrooms-could benefit in other ways from attempts to develop and promote products that could have health implications.

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