Unbowed by last month's $1 a pack increase in the cigarette tax, the tobacco industry is pushing new unhealthy products to gain more Rhode Island customers.
In recent weeks, Reynolds American Inc. mailed coupons for Camel Snus and convenience stores posted signs for the new product and distributed free tins. Snus (rhymes with noose) are small tea bag like packets that deliver nicotine and other ingredients when placed between cheek and gum. In other areas of the country, Reynolds is test marketing tobacco pellets, strips, and sticks for customers to place in their mouths.
"No matter how you brand it, or flavor it, at the end of the day we're talking about a product that delivers nicotine, tobacco, and a host of other chemicals that cause cancer," says James Beardsworth, director of communications for the American Cancer Society of Rhode Island. Snus packages warn consumers that the product may cause mouth cancer, gum disease, and tooth loss.
But Susan Ivey, chairman, president, and CEO of Reynolds, proudly told investment analysts on April 29 that snus are hitting the market at a great time. Smokers can use snus indoors where smoking is banned, Ivey noted, according to an online transcript prepared by Seeking Alpha, and have "a very compelling price point" because they are taxed at a lower rate than cigarettes
Reynolds' main competitor is also pushing the new product. "This is a growth strategy for us," Bill Phelps, spokesman for Philip Morris USA, the maker of Marlboro Snus, told USA Today.
Today, a pack of 20 cigarettes typically costs about $8 in Rhode Island, but a tin of 15 snus only costs about $5.
The Cancer Society Web site notes that smokeless tobacco "is less lethal than cigarettes, but using any tobacco poses serious health risks." A 2007 study published in the British medical journal Lancet found snu users were more likely to get pancreatic cancers than non-users, but found no difference in the incidence of oral and lung cancer. Another Lancet study found that smokers were 10 times more likely to get lung cancer than snu users.
The Rhode Island General Assembly is not discussing any proposals to further regulate snus, according to state Representative Joseph McNamara (D-Warwick), chairman of the House Health, Education, and Welfare Committee and a public health advocate. The Cancer Society's legislative priority, says Beardsworth, is removal of the 50-cent limit on taxing cigars.
Australia and the European Union banned snus in the early 1990s for public health reasons. The EU allowed Sweden, however, to continue to sell snus because the product is popular there. In promotional material, Camel Snus, which uses the pitch "spit free, sold cold," notes that the product originated in Sweden, "where everything is cold, fresh." Public health advocates worry that snus will help attract young smokers because they are flavored and packaged like candy, easy to conceal in school, and marketed with the popular Camel brand.