Sunday, 14 June 2009 18:54

Is Big Tobacco Selling Harm Reduction?

Written by Andrew Romeo
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No and Yes.Famed columnist and tobacco industry veteran, Andrew Romeo

One thing must remain clear.  Big Tobacco wants its legal consumers to smoke as many cigarettes as possible.  The bulk of their marketing, where it is allowed around the world, is dedicated to "YAS," Young Adult Smokers, who 'party smoke' when they go out, or have a few drinks.  The marketing emphasizes night-life and independence, blah-blah-blah.

Yet, "party-smoking" is going the way of the dodo all over Europe and North America.  So are many other opportunities to smoke. Bars, restaurants, workplaces, one's own home if there are children or a hostile co-habitant. Hell, the Poles tried to ban smoking in parks and at bus stops.

Some eating and drinking institutions manage to develop outdoor seating alternatives for smokers.  Sweden and Norway almost totally reversed the effect of their bans by making their summer seating year-round with huge heat-lamps and blankets.  One bar in Ireland, it was said, removed it's roof so that patrons could smoke 'in' the bar.

Nevertheless, there is writing on the wall.  Combustible tobacco is extremely harmful, and any tobacco company exec will tell you so. Tobacco taxes are taking cigarettes beyond the means of some consumers, and forcing them to travel distances to buy cheaper smokes, or to buy them on local black markets.  This forces tobacco companies to double as policemen, which I know from experience, is a pain in the ass.

So, we have smokeless products.  One billion cans in the US.  Around 220m cans in Europe coming from Swedish manufacturers.

In Sweden, it's been clear since the 1990's that, if you raise taxes steadily on cigarettes, but not on snus, smokers will either find them duty-free, on the black market, or, they will, more often than not, switch to snus.  NOT to reduce hThe Swedish Experiencearm or quit, but to save money and maintain their habit.

In a region where smoking incidences run high (25-35%), Sweden watched its own smoking rates drop to 11% by 2008.  Snusers were 17% of the tobacco universe. And Swedes live notoriously long lives.Of course, it's banned in the rest of the EU.

Swedish Match, the de facto owner of this business in Europe, has invested millions of crowns into an ongoing PR campaign to influence Brussels to re-visit the ban through the careful cooperation of respected health experts.

Their "Snus and health" web page  is a clear sign that SM is clearly not bashful about conveying this message.  They work with BAT and others on a pan-European scale to get the message to EU HQ via ESTOC.

In the US, snus has been taken by Big Tobacco, and re-imagined into a product for smokers to use when they cannot smoke.  Go onto the Camel SNUS website, and after sign-in the first thing you read is "Your Cigarettes May Get Jealous..."  Read Camel SNUS's "Snus Guide to Airports,"  "Snus Guide to Bars," and "Workplace Boredom" pamphlets.

Also, RJR is required to post the standard 'dip' warnings that snus "is not a safe alternative to cigarettes" and that snus "may cause gum-disease and tooth loss" or "mouth cancer." Strange. Didn't those Swedish guys say the exact opposite?

While I am not ganging up on RJR, it is obvious that US snus is geared toward the smoker.  Scan some product reviews here and on other forums, and you'll see descriptors such as "sickly sweet," "like molasses," "sugary," "cloying," etc. to describe American snus products (Camel, Marlboro, Nordic American products, even General Wintergreen, among others).

This is not collective idiocy as many may think.  It's not a conspiracy.  It's a natural way to provide smokers with a 'bridge' product that duplicates the sweetness (from sugar) available in American Blend cigarettes. The sugar is part of the addiction. And the tobacco companies still fully expect you to light up when you can.

In Sweden, American Blend is 95% of the cigarette market.  However, snus has co-existed with cigarettes there for generations.  Most brands are quite salty, which is a particularly Swedish taste.  Buy some Swedish black licorice (salmiak or lakris), and you're blasted with salt.

So, is Big Tobacco selling harm reduction? Don't count on it.  Maybe the question should be:  "Is Swedish Match, in fact, 'Big Tobacco?' " That's up to them to decide.  In the meantime the message is, as it always will be:  "Smoke 'em if you got 'em."

ANDREW ROMEOAndrew Romeo became a Member before there was a Snus Central
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