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The premature disclosure of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Eclipse low-smoke cigarette could prompt a wave of new products from tobacco companies even as RJR claimed uncertainty about when-if ever-it will bring the cigarette to market.

Tobacco observers say Philip Morris USA and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. have developed and patented similar technology cigarettes that heat tobacco rather than burn it. With RJR's Eclipse plans publicized in a story by The New York Times, those companies may put their research programs on high speed.

But always lurking in the background is RJR's expensive, highly publicized debacle with Premier, another low-smoke cigarette brand that smelled funny, was difficult to light and smoke, and failed to make it out of test market in 1989.

"Smokers smoke for taste," said Bob Cox, president-creative director of the Cox Group, New York, which once did some work on Premier. "If you give them something less ... if they draw and they are not getting smoke, it is going to be hard to adjust to."

RJR last week confirmed it tested Eclipse in front of consumer panels, but attempted to portray that as research that may or may not lead to actual product marketing.

Though Advertising Age learned that participants in a recent Buffalo, N.Y., test panel were told the product would be marketed within three weeks, RJR claimed such plans for producing and marketing the product are hazy-and not even the brand name is certain.

While a 15-minute video shown at the Buffalo session explained Eclipse as a product that reduced secondhand smoke, cigarettes given out at the session were in plain white packs, carrying no brand name and only a surgeon general's warning. The focus group was shown dummy ads, said RJR; the company said the product had not been assigned to a single agency as yet.

"We have a product and have taken ad concepts to focus groups," said Maura Ellis, senior director-public relations. "We are still trying to optimize the product."

She also denied The New York Times' statement that RJR decided to market the product through town meetings with smokers, saying the plan is one of several being discussed.

Though Eclipse looks like a typical cigarette, it smokes very differently. Instead of lighting and burning tobacco, a smoker lights an end that heats up and permits drawing in heated air through flavored tobacco. RJR says the cigarette gives a smoke with nicotine and tar at the lowest level of conventional cigarettes but with the flavor of normal cigarettes and without any problems of secondhand smoke.

The company says it will not try to make direct health claims for the brand, instead focusing on the absence of secondhand smoke. It also denied plans for Eclipse conflict with RJR's position challenging an Environmental Protection Agency finding there is danger in secondhand smoke.

Though he called raising the secondhand smoke issue a "questionable strategy," Mr. Cox said, "If you could bring out a cigarette without tar and nicotine, with the same taste that the cigarette smokers would go for, it might be worth it even if you risked a little egg on your face."

RJR already has been experimenting with new products. Salem Preferred, a brand that uses a new paper that reduces tobacco smell, last week went on sale on Long Island, N.Y., after earlier trial on military bases.

Tobacco critics had mixed reactions to Eclipse.

"The recent announcement ... raises again the question of why and how tobacco products ... can be manufactured, sold and marketed with virtually no oversight or regulatory controls," said a statement from the Coalition on Smoking OR Health, a group frequently critical of the industry. "Unregulated advertising and marketing ... could be implying less risk to users, create millions of new smokers who otherwise would not have started."

However another tobacco critic offered a little praise.

"It doesn't burn tobacco, so doesn't cause any of the problems associated with burning," said Dr. K. Michael Cummings, director of the anti-smoking program at Roswell Park Cancer Center in Buffalo. "And for a lot of people who might never get around to quitting, this might be an alternative."

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