State, federal legislators zero in on dissolvable tobacco products

The Minnesota Senate on Tuesday approved a bill aimed at limiting youth access to dissolvable tobacco tablets and strips that some claim are designed to resemble candy or flavored mints.

The bill and its companion legislation in the state House would tighten rules regarding sales promotions and strengthen penalties for selling new tobacco products to minors before the products even reach the state. Some insurance companies and associations such as the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association have expressed support for the Minnesota bill.

Dissolvable tobacco products are made of finely milled tobacco that dissolve and release nicotine when placed in the mouth. Supporters of the bill say they appeal to youth because they are packaged and consumed much like candy, breath mints and freshening strips, and are made more palatable through flavor additives such as cinnamon and mint.

One such product, Camel Orbs, manufactured by R.J. Reynolds, is being test marketed in Ohio, Indiana and Oregon. It is not yet being sold in Minnesota.

“Our laws and regulations need to keep up with new challenges that the tobacco industry has placed before us,” said Sen. Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), the bill’s chief sponsor.  “Right now, products are being marketed that were never envisioned when we wrote our tobacco laws decades ago.  There is no such thing as a safe tobacco product, and we need to ensure that we have laws in place to make sure these new products are regulated and kept out of the hands of children and youth.”

The bill’s passage by state senators comes just a week after U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) urged the Food and Drug Administration  (FDA) to order that dissolvable tobacco products be removed from store shelves until it completes a study on dissolvable tobacco’s potential health effect on children and teenagers.

In his letter to the FDA, Lautenberg referenced research on unintentional poisonings from tobacco products published in the April Pediatrics  journal. The study assessed potential toxicity of “novel smokeless tobacco products, which are of concern with their discreet form, candy-like appearance, and added flavorings that may be attractive to young children,” according to the abstract.

The report suggested that children under age 6 could be fatally poisoned from ingesting large quantities of dissolvable tobacco pellets.

“Nicotine is a highly addictive drug, and to make it look like a piece of candy is recklessly playing with the health of children,” said study author Gregory Connolly, director of the Tobacco Control Research Program at Harvard School of Public Health.

R.J. Reynolds disputed elements of the Pediatrics report through a statement on its web site. The company said the report doesn’t apply to Camel Orbs and its other dissolvable tobacco products because they weren’t being sold at the time the study took place. R.J. Reynolds also suggested that dissolvable tobacco shouldn’t be singled out as harmful because “91% of the accidental ingestions involved cigarettes, butts, cigars and traditional moist snuff, so it’s clearly important that ALL tobacco and nicotine products be kept out of the hands of kids.”

Ariva and Stonewall, brand names for dissolvable tobacco products manufactured by competitor Star Scientific Inc., contain 50 percent more nicotine than Camel Orbs, according to R.J. Reynolds’s statement.

Star Scientific also strongly condemned the study in a press release.

“Our company manufactured and marketed the first dissolvable smokeless tobacco products, Ariva ® and Stonewall ®, beginning in 2001,” said Paul Perito, head of Star Scientific. “These products have been on the market for nine years – which hardly makes them “novel” – and in that time, we have not encountered one case of nicotine “poisoning” of a child. Ariva ® and Stonewall ® are blister-packaged for exactly this reason – to prevent to the extent possible access to our products by toddlers and children.”

Still, Dibble said there’s a need to protect his state from being “flooded” with new, unregulated tobacco products. “This bill is not about banning any product or raising taxes on tobacco, Dibble said. “It is simply designed to keep harmful products out of the hands of children.”

A decision to ban the products would have to come from the FDA. The agency was given authority last year to control tobacco products and remove them from the marketplace if they are found harmful.

R.J. Reynolds and Star Scientific have both been asked to provide the FDA’s recently formed Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee Center for Tobacco Products  with research information on their dissolvable tobacco products.

For more information:

Tobacco Modernization and Compliance Act of 2010

Unfiltered: A Revealing Look at Today’s Tobacco Industry,” a report by ClearWay Minnesota, an independent non-profit funded by tobacco settlement funds.

Kathlyn Stone

Kathlyn Stone is a Twin Cities, Minnesota-based writer who has covered general news, and business, international trade, and health care news and policies for public and professional audiences.