How Safe Is Tobacco That Melts In Your Mouth?

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R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

Big name tobacco brands are ramping up their presence in the dissolvable tobacco game, and consumers in test markets, as well as regulators, are trying to figure out what make of the new products.

In early 2011, in Colorado and North Carolina, R.J. Reynolds began test-marketing Camel-branded wares — tobacco compressed into toothpicks, mints and strips that dissolve in your mouth. Unlike cigarettes, they produce no smoke, and unlike smokeless tobacco, you don’t have to spit when you use them. Aimed at adult smokers who want a nicotine kick in cigarette-free zones, Camel ads tout the products with the tag line, “What you want, when you want, where you want.”

On Wednesday, the Colorado Department of Public Health held a hearing to discuss the problem of who might want them: namely, kids and teens. Stephanie Walton of the state’s health department, who specializes in youth tobacco prevention, laid out the potential draws: youth are price- and brand-oriented, she said, and Camel Sticks, Orbs and Strips are selling in Colorado for about $2.50 for a 12-pack, compared to roughly $5 for a pack of cigarettes.

Camel is also a recognizable brand, as are Marlboro and Skoal, which have been test-marketing their own dissolvable “tobacco sticks” in Kansas, and are therefore more likely to attract younger customers. Although other dissolvable tobacco products have been on the market for a decade, including Ariva and Stonewall, both manufactured by Star Scientific, they have not been advertised like Camel products and are likely unknown to the average teenager (or adult for that matter).

The new dissolvables are all mint-flavored, like “a really weak Listerine breath strip, with a cigarette undertone,” as a Colorado man sampling Camel Strips at recent beer festival described the experience for a local media station — another draw for youths, particularly young girls. They’re also small and easy to conceal.

However, R.J. Reynolds says the products are made for and marketed to adults and will be sold in convenience stores and smoke shops right alongside other tobacco products, with the same age restrictions and health warnings.

In response to critics’ suggestions that the products appear too much like little treats, R.J. Reynolds spokesman Richard Smith counters, “Those who keep referring to these tobacco products as ‘candy’ or ‘mints’ are irresponsibly perpetuating false and misleading information.”

During the hearing on Wednesday, R.J. Reynolds scientist Geoffrey Curtin emphasized that the health risks associated with dissolvable products are less dire than those linked with cigarettes; there’s less concern about lung cancer, for example. But studies have shown that use of smokeless tobacco increases the risk of heart disease and gum disease, as well as the risk of oral, esophageal and pancreatic cancers.

Some advocates for “harm reduction,” like the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives, typically view such products as a lesser evil — better, at least, than smoking. The American Cancer Society also describes smokeless products as “less lethal,” but notes that users “set themselves up for new health problems” by using them as a crutch instead of quitting tobacco altogether.

Curtin issued the industry argument that dissolvables “may serve as a gateway away from smoking,” but rather than rely on them as vehicle for quitting, many consumers use similar smokeless products, including Camel’s Snus, spitless tobacco pouches, in conjunction with cigarettes. In fact, dissolvables deliver about as much of the addictive drug nicotine as cigarettes do.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which was for the first time in 2009 given the power to regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products, is reviewing whether and how it may control dissolvables. The agency is examining the health effects and marketing of the products, but will not produce a report on the matter — or even speculate about what the report will contain — until March 2012. The FDA has asked for all available research from the tobacco companies, but relatively few studies have been conducted.

In March of this year, in response to an application submitted by Star Scientific for approval to market two new lower-potency dissolvables as “modified risk tobacco products,” the FDA announced, much to the dismay of anti-smoking advocates, that the lozenges were not subject to the agency’s regulation.

However, 12 U.S. Senators asked the FDA to reconsider, and the agency is expected to close any loopholes that would prevent it from controlling dissolvables in the future. FDA spokesperson Stephanie Yao said in an email that the agency “believes” many, though not all, of these products will fall under the category of smokeless tobacco, which the FDA is fully able to regulate. So far, though, there isn’t yet a statutory definition for the new products.

R.J. Reynolds says it is operating under the assumption that all dissolvable tobacco products will be subject to regulation. But skeptics say they’ll believe that when they see it. “Tobacco companies are always one step ahead of the sheriff,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) recently told the Los Angeles Times. “They have found ways to evade the rules and regulations and public health warnings.”

If the growing popularity of other smokeless tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, chew and snuff, is any indication, the FDA’s problem isn’t going away. According to a 2010 report by the international company Research and Markets, the use of these products is increasing 7% per year. In some states the rate of smokeless tobacco use among men is nearly equal to the national smoking rate, at 20.8%.

R.J. Reynolds’ Smith says dissolvables were developed specifically to meet smokers’ needs. In an era of proliferating smoking bans and less social acceptance of the habit, the industry has had to transform, he says. “They meet societal expectations,” says Smith. “There’s no second-hand smoke, there’s no spitting, and with dissovables, there’s no cigarette-butt litter.”

Katy Steinmetz is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @KatySteinmetz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.