Trudging through seemingly endless corridors from the Las Vegas Hilton to the Las Vegas Convention was an adventure in itself. TPE had virtually no signs posted so I teamed up with some folks attending another convention as we hiked through the concrete jungle.
Fortunately, their convention had put out some signs and as luck would have it, was right next door to the Tobacco Plus Expo. I bid my comrades farewell and tucked my travel journal into my bag. Hopefully, I would be able to find the way back to the hotel at the end of the day.
I arrived about an hour and a half before the exhibit hall officially opened. Unlike last year's TPE and despite my press credentials, I was not allowed into the exhibit hall early. I now know that $20 also goes a lot further in New Orleans than it does in Las Vegas.
When I finally entered the Exhibit Hall, I compared the layout to the floor plan in my press packet. Immediately obvious was that 12 booths and the Food and Beverage area were missing at the rear. Black cloth separated this area from the rest of the show. All that remained were a few table, chairs and a small sign saying Food and Beverages were available back at the Hilton.
Less obvious were the booth clusters running along the side wall. The number of booths present opposed to the number of booths shown in the floor plan seemed much fewer. I wasn't there to count booths so I moved down to the Exhibit floor to see what I could discover.
Nordic American Smokeless (NAS) was the only snus company represented. They were actively showing their Klondike and Nordic Ice products. A number of attendees were at the NAS booth demonstrating real interest throughout the day, so shame on the other snus manufacturers for not attending.
Swedish Match NA did have a good-sized booth, but none of the General Snus people attended and the only products being shown were their cigars and American smokeless tobacco products like Red Man. I appear to be destined never meet Sandy Fowler-Jones of SMNA.
One person I did have the pleasure of meeting at the SMNA booth was Christopher Lemmon; Brand Manager for Timber Wolf smokeless tobacco products . Unlike my experience at the SMNA booth last year, Chris knew about snus, was a snus user himself (General Wintergreen), and happy to talk snus with me.
If there were more at SMNA with his snus enthusiasm in the cigar verticle - especially at the territory and field level, perhaps Swedish Match would be moving much more product through their tobacco store distribution channel. As a representative of Swedish Match's North American organization, he made me proud to be avid fan of all the Swedish Match snus offerings. Well done, Chris.
I stopped by the Liggett Vector booth and was greeted by Steve Shipe; VP of Sales and Marketing Services. We met at the TPE last year.
In 2009, we and some others had a lengthy conversation about snus and Gran Prix snus in particular. This year, he said Liggett Vector is pretty much out of the snus business. Knowing and dreading the answer, I asked him "so all the Gran Prix snus in convenience stores and even being sold on the Internet....do you have someone new making it or is it the old Snus AB product?"
I held my breath hoping to be surprised. Instead, Steve answered matter-of-factly that the Gran Prix available for sale today is the old Snus AB manufactured product. It seems they have a warehouse full of it and are selling it until they run out. For those of you who don't know, the last production run of Gran Prix snus manufactured by Snus AB was in September of 2008. Snus AB subsequently went bankrupt and their factory was purchased at a liquidation sale by Gajane-owned GN Tobacco (GNT). Both the Snus AB products and the current GNT Olde' Viking snus are fermented; not pasteurized.
What this all means to snusers is that if you purchase a can of Gran Prix today which was the very last can produced, it would be 18 months old. As Liggett still has a warehouse full of Gran Prix, it is a safe assumption that the overwhelming majority of Gran Prix is older to much older than 18 months.
Because Gran Prix (and GNT Old' Viking) are not steam pasteurized like Real Swedish Snus, the carcinogenic micro-organisms naturally occurring in tobacco (TSNA's) have continued growing and growing in the cans for all this time. Who knows how high they are now? I tried Gran Prix a year ago and the portions were dried out and tasteless (and made me nauseous). Opening a can today is almost akin to digging up a coffin and opening it. I'm very disappointed in my friends at Liggett.
Otherwise, I found only two tobacco distributors who had snus as one of their offerings. Lil' Brown Smoke Shack was listed as carrying both General Snus and RJR Camel SNUS. I visited their booth speaking first to, ironically, a Cigar International (owned by Swedish Match) Rep. He knew of General Snus, knew that General Mint was being released for over-the-counter sales in the US shortly, and was very pleasant to speak to. It was also apparent that he was there to help sell cigars, not snus. After a couple of detours, I was finally directed to Brenda Fisher; the National Sales Manager for Lil' Brown.
She indeed knew they carried General and Camel SNUS, but had none on display or available at the show. Their booth was crowded so I let her go with my thanks. Walking to another booth, I spotted boxes of Discreet Snus by AST on display among other products. I asked them how Discreet was selling these days. He wasn't very enthusiastic. Too much consumer confusion in understanding why a product which is about as dangerous to their health as a cup of French Roast Coffee still says This Product May Cause Cancer.
In fact, in talking to many distributors of all tobacco products (except cigars), once I got past the enthusiastic booth greeting and asked them what they thought of FDA's current and pending impact, the smile faded from their faces and their shoulders slumped. All of them were uncertain and leery of what to expect from FDA based on their actions since The Tobacco Act was incredibly signed by President Obama into law. Many who were not heavy in cigar products were fearful for the future viability of their businesses. A few even spoke of working on 'contingency plans'; especially the RYO tobacco guys. This mood permeated the air like the cigarette and cigar smoke.
Even e-cigarettes were under-represented as compared to last year. I don't know if that's because of FDA or due to the public recently becoming aware of the dirty little secret of the current e-cigarette industry: when inhaled, e-cig smoke contains virtually no nicotine.
There were only 3 e-cig/e-cigar booths showing them as their primary product. Martin, the very enthusiastic CEO of Dr. Martin e-products unfortunately didn't seem to speak English well enough to go beyond the sales pitch. Most annoying was that while I was trying to find a way to communicate with him, Martin stood very close to me and intentionally blew e-smoke in my face....constantly. Before I was saved by Swedish snus and was still smoking, I didn't like it when another smoker blew real cigarette smoke in my face. Maybe it's a cultural difference between America and China, but blowing e-smoke at people is not a positive marketing tactic in the US.
Was the trip worth my while? Fortunately yes. I finally got to meet in person Darren Quinn, CEO and President of Nordic American Smokeless and former CEO of Taboca A/S. He was as enthusiastic about version 2 of NAS as he has been on the phone. We have a mutual friend we talked about and I genuinely enjoyed our brief time together.
I did picture him as being taller but otherwise, he looked just like the one picture of him which somehow made it to Google Images. He promised to send me more photos for future use but asked me not to photograph him at the show. It's an old-school Big Tobacco thing. There are more pictures of vampires on the internet then there are of some long-time American tobacco execs.
Darren also introduced me to Jesper Svensson, Business Intelligence Manager for skruf Snus AB. I was ecstatic. skruf and General are the only two brands which have been in my rotation since my first snus order in 2007 and have never left; even briefly.
The skruf story is also one of the few positive tales where two young entrepreneurs start a snus business, it explodes in popularity, is purchased by Big Tobacco (in this case Imperial Tobacco Group) and Big Tobacco didn't run it into the ground trying to "improve" the valuable entity they purchased in the first place.
The taste and quality of skruf remains the same. The white cans stayed. They didn't introduce skruf Wintergreen or skruf Cherry snus. skruf Snus AB still has the "little guy" feel that it did before acquisition. Imperial didn't compromise skruf's image, product or integrity. As a skruf user, I thank Imperial (although skruf stark white portion I still believe to be an error in judgement.)
I did try to pin Jesper down down on exactly how much nicotine is in the new skruf Xtra Stark. I even subtly attempted a bribe in the form of a can of skruf stark I had been chain-snusing in order to stay awake. He pretend not to notice.
Unfortunately, Jesper is in Business Intelligence. Like our own SnusCIA, he would not easily let go of his secrets. Since we were in too public a place for me to drug him or shock him with a cattle prod, I had to be content with "up to 30% more nicotine than skruf stark portion." Most importantly, Jesper and I had a great conversation and (this may shock you) he is the first person I've ever met from skruf Snus. Our meeting was one of my all too few highlights at Tobacco Plus Expo 2010.
Later I hooked up with the oft-beleaguered Moe UNZ who runs our SnusCentral e-Snus Store in Sweden. We had spent less than 10 minutes walking through the show together when he stopped and said "this is a total waste of time for me". He did not say that last year at TPE in New Orleans. We went to lunch, had a long conversation, and never returned to the show. I somehow even missed visiting my friend Lou Maiellano of Tobacco Today. Not a great show.
I started this article by saying there were two major trade shows for the tobacco industry each year. Until FDA sorts itself out, I believe two tobacco trade shows is one too many.
Swedish Snus Ambassador to the United States
Reporting From Las Vegas for SnusCENTRAL.org