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WASHINGTON -- Much of the debate on whether the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should regulate tobacco products has focused on how cigarette makers, such as Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, would be affected. But other tobacco companies have a lot at stake as well. Largely outside the spotlight, smokeless tobacco makers also have been pushing for their interests.
One smokeless tobacco company recently made an announcement that provides some insight into how the competitive environment could change depending on how federal regulation of tobacco products takes shape. The nation's top smokeless tobacco maker, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., a subsidiary of Greenwich, Conn.-based UST Inc., wants to run advertisements that encourage smokers to switch to a new smokeless product because it doesn't produce the secondhand smoke that has helped put cigarette puffers in the category of social pariahs, according to the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch.
The product, Revel, is a tobacco-filled packet flavored with mint that consumers suck. Unlike most other smokeless tobacco, Revel is a non-spit product, which the company thinks will make it more attractive to both men and women. UST has asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to review a proposed advertisement, which features a young couple and the message: "I was a smoker, but my wife hated the smoke. No secondhand smoke. Another reason to switch to Revel."
USST has test-marketed Revel in two midwestern cities and plans to launch a wider test market later this year in conjunction with the advertising.
"We know that the issue of secondhand smoke is very important to smokers," said Richard Verheij, UST's executive vice president for external affairs. "They don't like the smell, they don't like the smell getting in their clothes. They don't like to annoy other people."
So far, the company hasn't gotten a response from the FTC. While the agency is responsible for preventing false and deceptive advertising, it doesn't typically pre-approve ads. UST said it is only looking for guidance. Last year, the company asked the FTC to review a similar ad that claimed smokeless products are less dangerous than cigarettes. It later withdrew the request, but UST and other smokeless makers would like to send that message to the potentially huge market of 50 million American smokers, and FDA regulation could enable them to do that.
Star Scientific Inc., a tobacco company based in Chester, Va., has been selling a smokeless product called Ariva in the Richmond area with advertisements that pitch the product as an alternative for smokers in situations when they can't light up.
Swedish Match, a Sweden-based tobacco company whose U.S. headquarters is in Richmond, Va., also has been test-marketing a smokeless product called Exalt. It, too, is targeted at smokers for times when they can't light up.
The companies have argued that legislation giving the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products should recognize a distinction between smokeless tobacco and cigarettes, based on evidence that smokeless tobacco has fewer harmful chemicals than cigarette smoke.
Verheij said UST would be open to the idea of FDA regulation if smokeless tobacco makers are allowed to tell consumers about the risks of smokeless tobacco versus cigarettes.