RJR tries out direct sales of three cigarette brands

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R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., bypassing retail outlets, is testing a direct sales program for three of its brands.

Since November, the company has been selling More, Now and Vantage through direct mail in seven states, a spokeswoman confirmed. She said the six-page catalog goes only to adults whose ages are verified through valid photo identification and other means such as double-blind telephone interviews.


The cigarettes are offered "at full, undiscounted retail price," she said, and sold only by the carton, with a three carton minimum. The program is testing in California, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas.

Although the move appears to set up a conflict with cigarette retailers, RJR maintains its test program offers visibility to less-popular brands that are finding it difficult to compete for shelf space. Vantage, More and Now "together account for about a share point" of the entire cigarette market, said the spokeswoman, and as a result "have suffered distribution losses."

She wouldn't comment on whether the company plans to add other brands to its direct-mail program in the future.

According to The Maxwell Report, Vantage, a brand with a mid-range tar content of 4 milligrams, had an 0.8% share of market through June. More, a thin-style cigarette, has a 0.4% share. Ultra-low-tar Now had a 0.3% share.

RJR's spokeswoman said its direct-mail program for the brands -- none of which is advertised -- isn't directly competitive with retailers. Each mailing contains a toll-free number to call for the nearest retailer carrying the smokes.

Ned Roscoe, president of Cigarettes Cheaper!, a chain of 500 tobacco stores in 20 states, doesn't view the RJR program as a competitive threat.


"It proves that RJR is out of touch with the dynamics of the cigarette business," he said. "Smoking is a habit that most people think they will give up soon. The typical smoker finishes a pack, thinks that will be the end and then decides, `I'd like one more.' That smoker won't click on the Internet or send a check in the mail and wait a week for the cigarettes."

Anti-smoking groups also were wary of the trend. Although he had no knowledge of RJR's particular program, Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said that "direct mail is a concern because of how hard it is to verify age. It's easy for a kid to send in a copy of his mother, father's or sister's driver's license. The potential for abuse is real."

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