Our story this week about marketers being unable to tout the potential health benefits of electronic cigarettes brought to mind an Ad Age storyline from 1988: The rise and fall of Premier. Premier was an audacious attempt by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. to sell a cigarette that heated, rather than burned, tobacco. It created no sidestream smoke, produced no ashes, contained zero tar, and had 97% less nicotine and 70% less carbon monoxide than other brands at the time.
This was a breakthrough, and certainly seemed like a potential blessing for the tobacco-addicted. But these promises couldn't be publicly stated. Any whiff of a claim that this cigarette was "safer" than the average would bring down the wrath of the Food and Drug Administration on the tobacco industry. Because health claims are regulated, RJR had to talk around the issue. Marketing called Premier a "cleaner" smoke, adding nebulous statements such as: "It's a breakthrough that changes the very composition of cigarette smoke."
The company "cannot make a health claim about "zero tar,' " Diana Temple, an analyst with Salomon Bros., told me for a story I wrote 23 years ago. Nor could RJR tout the fact that its animal tests showed that the "smoke from Premier is not biologically active," meaning not tumor-producing or carcinogenic, she said.
Not carcinogenic! If that was true -- even if the tests weren't independently validated -- surely this promised to be a better alternative. Yet health advocates rebelled, maintaining, as they do now, that there's no such thing as a safer cigarette.
So with the best intentions, anti-smoking groups swooped into the St. Louis and Phoenix test markets faster than you could say "cancer stick." Local health organizations petitioned the state Board of Pharmacy to label Premier a drug and remove it from market. It was denounced by health commissioners in Missouri. New Jersey held hearings to ban Premier, even though it couldn't be purchased within 1,000 miles of the Garden State's border.
The American Medical Association asked the Food and Drug Administration to regulate Premier, and one legislator asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether RJR was positioning the brand as a "safer" cigarette.
Lost in all this chest-thumping was that Premier really did appear to be a less harmful version of a product many people were already addicted to. It therefore had to have some value , especially in those days, when there weren't as many smoking-cessation tools available.
Don't get me wrong: The best way to avoid cancer is to stop smoking, or never start. But as an ex-smoker, I can tell you that for those unwilling or unable to stop, a less-harmful cigarette could be the next-best thing. That said, I can't promise with 100% certainty that had I begun smoking a cigarette like Premier 20 years ago, I wouldn't still be smoking today.
Thankfully, smoking rates have seen a big decline, which started before Premier's launch. According to the government's National Health Interview Survey, the percentage of U.S. adults who smoke was 19.3% in 2010, vs. 28.8% in 1987. But the one in five who persist may have had a less-harmful option if the all-or-nothing stance of the anti-smoking lobby had been a bit more yielding.
Premier had other problems, most notably that you needed instructions to smoke it and that it stank like burning refuse. The stench was so bad that I can recall it almost 25 years later. But had the industry been allowed to continue refining that product and others, a more palatable version would surely have come to market -- and perhaps saved some lives.
Months after I wrote Premier's obituary, I entered a restaurant near RJR's headquarters and picked up that unmistakable scent. I asked RJR about it and was told the company was still making Premier for employees. I can only conclude they smoked it because they knew, or suspected, something RJR couldn't share with the general public. It sure as hell couldn't have been because they liked it.