Tobacco Talk: FDA web dialogue on tobacco

WASHINGTON Retailers were given the opportunity to “share ideas, offer recommendations [and] ask questions” about how the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products (CTP) can better communicate with them, during a web dialogue on Wednesday.

By midday, there were 357 retailers, tobacco-control executives and others participating in the dialogue, but the discussion was decidedly one-sided. The CTP mostly thanked participants for their input and promised to take the information under advisement. As Kathleen Quinn, acting director of health communication and direction at the CTP put it, “The purpose of today’s open dialogue was to see what channels and tactics are best to be used to reach retailers. It wasn’t meant to answer detailed questions on the regulations.”

Thomas Briant, executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets Inc. (NATO), participated in the all-day event, and told CSP Daily News, “I think the web conference is somewhat effective for retailers and others to give input to the FDA; however, it does not appear to be very effective in obtaining feedback or answers to question asked of the FDA.”

The discussion particularly looked at rules that limit the sale, distribution and marketing of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, which become effective on June 22, 2010. Among other things, the regulations:

  • Prohibit the sale of cigarettes or smokeless tobacco to people younger than 18.
  • Prohibit the sale of cigarette packages with fewer than 20 cigarettes.
  • Prohibit the sale of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco in vending machines, self-service displays or other impersonal modes of sales, except in very limited situations.
  • Prohibit free samples of cigarettes and limits distribution of smokeless tobacco products.
  • Prohibit tobacco brand-name sponsorship of any athletic, musical or other social or cultural event, or any team or entry in those events.
  • Prohibit gifts or other items in exchange for buying cigarettes or smokeless tobacco products.
  • Require that audio ads use only words with no music or sound effects.
  • Prohibit the sale or distribution of items, such as hats and t-shirts, with tobacco brands or logos.

The various topics were blanketed under two agenda items, “Help Us Help You—Information You Need” and “Meeting Retailer Needs—Effective Channels and Messages.”

One particular topic, “Sell Through of Cigarette Brands with Descriptors,” drew in the more participants than any other (20 at press time). Briant explained that one of the primary questions being asked is on the ability to sell through, at the wholesale and retail level, cigarette brands with descriptors of “light,” “mild,” or “low.”

“With the June 22nd effective date of the regulation prohibiting such descriptors, the industry needs a reply immediately on whether wholesalers and retailers can sell through their inventories,” he said, “and that response has not been forthcoming from the FDA.”

Briant suggested that beyond the “cut and paste” responses of the web dialogue, the FDA should have had an attorney who “has the authority to answer some of these conversations at the time they’re raised, rather than having to wait for an indeterminate amount of time for an answer or response.”

Briant said another concern was on point-of-sale advertising. A federal district court struck down the ban on color tobacco advertising, which the FDA has now appealed to the U.S. circuit court of appeals. “On that one, because the litigation is ongoing, they can’t answer,” he said.

Additional questions pertained to self-service bays, social media, text messaging, casinos and signage, among other topics. It was not immediately clear when the FDA hopes to have responses to retailer questions and concerns.

“I hope the answers will be forthcoming, because the industry needs to know the answers so we can comply with the law,” Briant said. “We want to be compliant, but we need to know or be provided with accurate information in order to comply.”

Briant said NATO will send its members sometime during the first week of June a memo with the best advice at that point and time of how retailers should comply with the regulations that go into effect June 22.

By Linda Abu-Shalback Zid
CSP, May 27, 2010

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