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Tobacco firms take a deep draw on smokeless products

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As cigarette sales have plummeted, the two biggest makers have bought companies that have 90% of the smokeless market. Snus and other forms of tobacco are popular because they’re not as obtrusive, costly and harmful as cigarettes.
Ron Carroll prefers to smoke cigars and pipes. But when he can’t do that, he says he manages to unobtrusively get his nicotine fix by slipping a packet of tobacco, about the size of a tea bag, under his upper lip.

“I use it all the time — movies, planes,” said the Chicagoan, who adds that he likes the fact he can remove the packet as easily as a piece of gum. There’s no chewing, spitting or mess, he said.

“It’s discreet, and you don’t look like an addict,” he said. “Smoking’s definitely more about the flavor; the whole experience. With this, it’s just taking the edge off.”

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Cigarette sales by volume have plummeted 17% from 2005, partly the result of health warnings and bans on smoking in public places as well as taxation by local and federal governments. And the heat on cigarette smokers is expected to intensify as the federal Food and Drug Administration requires images of corpses and diseased lungs to be featured on cigarette packs in two years.

Smokeless tobacco products — which come in shapes ranging from toothpicks to orbs and in flavors from cherry to peach — so far have not met with the same intense scrutiny, although there have been some changes. In June, the FDA increased the size of warning labels on smokeless products. “This product is addictive” and “This product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes,” the warnings say.

Scientists say that overall, smokeless tobacco products are less harmful than cigarettes, in large part because of a reduced risk of lung cancer. But medical experts agree that quitting tobacco altogether is the best alternative.

The FDA won’t report to the secretary of Health and Human Services until 2012 on whether such products pose a threat to adolescents and children.

In a letter to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in February, Lawrence Deyton, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, expressed concern that the Camel dissolvables line — which includes tobacco strips that dissolve in the mouth, sticks that resemble toothpicks and orbs that look like hard candy — could be appealing to children and adolescents.

“Absolutely none of us, no one, wants kids to smoke or to use tobacco products,” said Todd Holbrook, senior director of marketing for Camel Snus, at Reynolds.

Sherry Emery, senior scientist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has conducted focus groups on smoking products and said smoking tends to appeal to young people because it is visible, not because it is invisible.

“Smoking is still very much a social behavior,” she said. “Smokeless tobacco is not social; the idea is to conceal it.”

While smokeless products represented just 6% of all tobacco sales in 2009, the market is growing at a rate of about 7% a year. Sales of smokeless tobacco products in 2010 are expected to total about $4.8 billion, according to research firm Morningstar Inc. in Chicago, which calculated that figure based on a year-over-year growth rate of 7%.

One of the reasons for the uptick is that “now you can consume products without anybody else being aware of it,” said Phil Gorham, a Morningstar analyst who follows the tobacco industry. He also said economic factors are driving people to quit or to switch to smokeless products. “We’ve had a big tax increase both on the federal and state level on cigarettes, and it’s becoming more expensive to smoke in some states,” he said.

At one retailer in Chicago, a pack of Marlboro was $10, with state, county and city excise taxes included, whereas a can of premium Swedish snus was $5.27 after taxes.

Gorham also said the growing array of smokeless tobacco products also has helped grow the market. “Going back a few years, smokeless products — all there really was the moist tobacco products that baseball players used, where you had to spit out the juice,” he said.

For the first time, viable alternatives exist, said Jason Healy, who founded an electronic cigarette company called Blu Cigs in 2009 in response to what he said has been a movement to treat smokers like lepers.

“Everyone’s been looking for the Holy Grail that allows you to smoke without everything that everyone’s concerned about,” Healy said.

Big Tobacco has taken notice. From 2006 to 2009, the country’s two largest tobacco companies by market share, Altria Group Inc. and Reynolds American Inc., acquired smokeless tobacco companies that together give them about 90% of the U.S. market share in that category.

The tobacco companies have begun branding smokeless products with traditional cigarette brand names such as Marlboro and Camel to lure disenfranchised smokers.

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