Chewing Tobacco May Soon Be Labeled As Safer Than Cigarettes

CREDIT: PRNEWSFOTO/SWEDISH MATCH
CREDIT: PRNEWSFOTO/SWEDISH MATCH

If a Swedish tobacco company has its way, it may soon be able to designate one of its products as a safe alternative to cigarettes, a possibility that concerns public health advocates and smoking cessation experts.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will soon deliberate the merits of changing the health label on the Swedish Match of Stockholm’s brand of snus — tiny teabag-like cloth packages that hold moist tobacco — so that the company can say its product is safer than cigarettes without legal repercussions.

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Snus — currently banned in every country in the European Union except for Sweden — has grown in popularity in the United States, with nearly 50 million cans sold here last year. Questions about its marketability comes at a time when other tobacco companies are eyeing cigarette alternatives. This compelled the Swedish tobacco firm’s appeal to the FDA last November.

In a 100,000 page document, proponents of the label change point to the absence of inhalable carcinogens that cause lung cancer and lung disease and snus’ potential to help smokers kick the habit.

“What we’re asking the FDA about is to allow us to inform the public with more truthful information about the health effects, because we believe that the health effects are clearly different than for most other products that are out there,” Lars Erik Rutqvist, the company’s senior vice president for scientific affairs, told NPR.

However, Dr. Michael Steinberg, director of the Tobacco Dependence Program at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, says the nicotine in each package carries the risk of raising heart rate and blood pressure, increasing the risk of stroke, pancreatic cancer, and other health problems. Another pressing concern that Steinberg has centers on nicotine’s addictive properties, telling NPR earlier this week that the label change could “contribute to hooking a generation on nicotine.”

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“If you imagine a young person who sees on a label that this is a less harmful tobacco product, they may interpret that as, ‘Oh, this is not harmful at all. I might as well try it and see what it’s all about, ‘” Steinberg said. “And that person can still become addicted to the nicotine effects, which could either lead to them becoming a long-term smokeless tobacco user, or could escalate to them starting to smoke cigarettes.”

Steinberg and other health experts have some cause for concern about the label change, a move that some interpret as one of Big Tobacco’s latest methods of grooming a new generation of tobacco consumers and ultimately maintaining its status as a multi-billion dollar industry.

Stunting the growth of the smokeless tobacco industry may prove to be a huge undertaking. Complicating matters for opponents of chewing tobacco and other tobacco product alternatives is scientific uncertainty about their safety relative to that of cigarettes. While the Tobacco Control Act of 2009 allows the FDA to impose regulations on specific tobacco products, such as smokeless tobacco, if the agency “deems” it to be worthy of that action, the ongoing debate about alternatives’ long-term effects often make it harder for officials to take those steps.

The Swedish tobacco firm wants to use the same law to attain a “modified risk” status that would also allow it to market snus as a smoking cessation tool. But Steinberg and others contend that helping smokers quit is far from the company’s primary goal. Rather they assert that Big Tobacco just wants to find way to generate revenue.

“Snus is being co-marketed with cigarettes,” Steinberg told WebMD last year. “The companies are not shy in saying, ‘When you can’t smoke, use snus.’ But when you can smoke, it is clear they want you to smoke cigarettes. They make more money from cigarettes sales than anything else on the planet.”

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Even with a recent decline in smoking, the nation’s largest tobacco companies have carried on a decades-old business model that thrives on the support of young people, also known as replacement smokers. The strategies haven’t changed much, especially as Americans become more health conscious and turn to alternative tobacco products, including chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes. During an interview with ThinkProgress last September, Vince Wilmore of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said those companies have recently increased magazine advertising after the passage of a law that restricted such outreach.

The efforts of tobacco companies have proven fruitful. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released in August showed that more than 250,000 young people who have never smoked a cigarette used an e-cigarette in 2013. That number more than tripled within a span of three years. Snus has also proven itself as a lucrative cigarette alternative. In Sweden, it has replaced the cigarette as the tobacco product of choice among men. American tobacco companies have taken notice. Altria entered the alternative tobacco product industry when it purchased smokeless tobacco companies Skoal and Copenhagen for more than $10 billion in 2008.