Wednesday, May 27, 2009

For smokers long confined to standing outside in nasty weather to get their nicotine fix, Camel Orbs - a dissolvable tobacco product slightly bigger than an Altoid mint - is an alternative that keeps users out of the elements.

For Sen. Sherrod Brown and public health advocates, it’s yet another diabolical strategy to get youngsters hooked on smoking.

Mr. Brown, Ohio Democrat, last week successfully added a measure calling for a quick Federal Drug Administration study of Orbs and other dissolvable tobacco products to a larger bill that would, for the first time, put tobacco products under FDA regulatory authority. The bill, with the amendment, passed through committee last week and now awaits full Senate approval. It was passed by the House in April.

Mr. Brown compares Orbs to candy, and said the fact that the products can be passed off as breath mints is another way to lure children into becoming tobacco addicts at a young age.

“It is criminal to me that they market to children the way they do,” he said.

But David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds, said the product, like all tobacco products, is legal only for adults over the age of 18.

R.J. Reynolds introduced Orbs in Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis; and Portland, Ore., earlier this year, and the company said early feedback has been positive.

Orbs, Mr. Howard said, “meet the societal expectation of no second-hand smoke, no spitting, and in the case of dissolvables, no litter.”

He said they are hardly candy. They are made of finely milled tobacco and designed for adults.

“The bottom line is these are tobacco products,” he said. “They are clearly marked as tobacco products, they are marketed as tobacco products and they carry the same warnings as tobacco products.”

He said similar products - Ariva and Stonewall - have been on the market since earlier this decade with little protest.

Still, he said he welcomes Mr. Brown’s amendment and any study of the product.

Bill Godshall of a group called SmokeFree Pennsylvania counts himself as one of the defenders of Orbs. He compares the products to Nicorette or Commit Lozenges and cites studies indicating they are safer than cigarettes.

“What this comes down to is people fighting for the same market,” he said.

But Mr. Brown cites studies indicating a single Orb has between 60 and 300 times the amount of tobacco contained in a single cigarette. And Greg Connolly, a professor of the practice of public health at Harvard University, calls Orb products “nicotine on training wheels.”

R.J. Reynolds, Mr. Connolly said, “is just trying to expand the options for nicotine delivery products for the American public.”

Smoking a cigarette for the first time can be a deeply uncomfortable experience for a teenager, Mr. Connolly said. There’s the smoke, for one thing, as well as the coughing and the taste. By turning it into a mint-like product - in mint and cinnamon flavors - they’ve made nicotine addiction a more pleasurable experience, he said.

Mr. Connolly said Mr. Brown’s amendment would allow the FDA to begin the studies necessary to take Orbs off the market.

Unless the FDA starts regulating tobacco, he warned, the tobacco industry will continue to get more sophisticated in how it delivers nicotine.

If that doesn’t happen, he said, “the tobacco companies own the future.”

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