As states make it tougher to light up in public, tobacco manufacturers are rolling out new smokeless tobacco lines — some flavored, some spitless, prompting worries from public health officials about potentially unknown risks of these new products and their appeal to underage users.
Among the new offerings in Michigan is Snus — tiny tea-bag-like pouches of tobacco that don’t require spitting.
Other products, such as tablets that look like small breath mints or dissolvable strips and sticks made of finely milled tobacco, are being test-marketed elsewhere, and, if profitable, also could arrive in Michigan.
The Michigan Department of Community Health has asked tobacco advocates to begin collecting information on who is selling the items.
“The more you can make a drug easier and cheaper to get, the more kids will use it,” said Jeanne Knopf DeRoche, whose Plymouth-based company receives state funding to do prevention campaigns and help monitor retail outlets in much of Wayne and Monroe counties.
“It’s not just about cigarettes,” said David Howard, spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. “It’s about offering adult tobacco consumers options.”
Where there’s no smokes, there could be new danger
Nahla Khobeir stands in front of rows of new smokeless tobacco products — and smack dab in the middle of another public health debate.
An old lollipop container holds hundreds of coupons that customers have brought to her for their free packets of Snus, small tea-bag-like packets of spitless tobacco that come in flavors like spearmint and peppermint.
“Honest to God, when you open these” — Khobeir, a nonsmoker, said as she peeled back the packaging of some loose tobacco and took a deep whiff — “you want to eat it.”
That’s just one of the reasons public health officials worry youths would be intrigued by the new products. Others worry that a battered economy has made it even tougher to keep the products away from underage consumers.
On the lookout
Even with new federal laws on how products can be labeled and displayed, retailers may be more willing to take risks in order to make a sale, and police departments have a tougher time finding the manpower to enforce the law, said Knopf, whose Plymouth-based company receives state funding for prevention campaigns and monitoring retail outlets in Wayne and Monroe counties.
Knopf sent in minors to try to buy tobacco products in 75 stores this summer and found just 67% of the store clerks refused to sell tobacco to youths. That’s down from a usual 85% compliance rate, she said.
Last week, the Michigan Department of Community Health held an online meeting with more than 50 tobacco-control advocates, explaining the new products and asking them to begin monitoring gas stations and retail outlets to find out who is selling what.
The goal is not for enforcement. In fact, the names of the shops aren’t included on the forms monitors are to fill out, said Teri Wilson, consultant and researcher for the Tobacco Section of Community Health.
Rather, it’s to give information to the Food and Drug Administration, with a focus on how products are marketed and what teens can get their hands on, she said.
A concern in the new products, she said, is that teens can use them discreetly rather than lighting up a cigarette or spitting wads of chewing tobacco.
For adults only
Tobacco companies like R.J. Reynolds and Altria stress that their tobacco products are legal and marketed to and intended only for adults making informed choices. Smokeless and spitless products especially allow adults to make those choices with no offending secondhand smoke or spitting, they said.
“The Snus proposition is designed for adult smokers … who are looking for a tobacco alternative to cigarettes,” said David Sutton, spokesman for Altria, which introduced its smokeless tobacco pouches, Camel Snus, in Michigan this spring — just before a statewide ban on smoking in restaurants and bars.
The Snus lines, though a sliver of the tobacco offerings, are becoming more popular, according to both companies.
From her Ida store, Khobeir said she has turned away countless youths from illegally buying tobacco products, especially those she describes as expanding lines of scented and flavored cigarellos, or small cigars. And she sells plenty to older teens and young adults — possibly hooked, she said, while they were underage and around young adults who would buy the products for them.
Even her son, Alexander, an 18-year-old who will attend the University of Michigan this year, said he and many of his friends have used them, and he tried them several times, even after being repulsed by them.
“It’s like a psychological thing. You’re a teen and you just want to try anything, anything you can get your hands on. You do it because someone tells you no,” he said.
More smokeless tobacco
Youth smoking has been on the decline for a decade now, but smokeless tobacco is another matter, according to the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention every two years.
From 1999, while smoking rates continued to drop among young people, the survey found an uptick in the number of youths who had used smokeless tobacco at least one day in the month before being questioned — from 7.8 in the spring of 1999 to 8.9 — 10 years later.
That brings up a debate in so many discussions on public health, said Kenneth Warner, dean of the University of Michigan’s public health school and a founding member of the board of directors of the American Legacy Foundation, the group assigned to divvy up the multistate tobacco settlement.
Some wonder whether the new products might reduce the overall risk to smokers by making them light up less often or quit altogether — even though those products might increase the risk to the overall population by hooking new users.
But such discussions dilute the message about the harm of tobacco and nicotine and other ingredients, said Terry Pechacek, associate director for science at the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health.
There’s something else that worries Pechacek and others.
Many of the new items are variations on products that have been around for years in varying forms and in different markets, but consolidation within the tobacco industry means that many of these items now carry major names — Marlboro and Camel, for example — reinforcing the segue for youths between cigarettes and other tobacco products.
“The only proven way to avoid health risk is to never start using any tobacco in any form in any case,” he said.
BY ROBIN ERB