Health

RJ Reynolds is targeting new cigarette offerings as the flavor ban comes into force

RJ Reynolds is targeting new cigarette offerings as the flavor ban comes into force

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RJ Reynolds has wasted no time since California’s flavored tobacco ban went into effect in late December. “California, we’ve got you covered,” the company announced in bold letters on a flyer mailed to its cigarette customers.

The law prohibits flavors, odors or “flavors” in tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes. But anti-smoking experts say RJ Reynolds, maker of the Camel and Newport brands, is trying to get around the ban by luring smokers with a range of what it says are new menthol-free versions offering “a taste that satisfies the senses” and “a a fresh new twist.”

The campaign is seen by critics as a provocation to California officials, who must enforce the ban, which includes a provision banning packaging or claims that suggest a product has a taste. The Food and Drug Administration is also moving forward with national plan to withdraw menthol cigarettes from the market.

According to public health authorities, the potential reduction in smoking rates from the menthol ban could extend the length and quality of life for millions. For RJ Reynolds and other tobacco companies, losing sales of menthol cigarettes could be financially damaging.

Luis Pinto, vice president of communications at RJ Reynolds, said in an email that “the products introduced in California meet and comply with all applicable regulatory requirements.” He added that the new cigarettes “are not subject to the recently introduced ban because they do not have a distinct taste or flavor other than tobacco.”

But while not all tobacco control experts are convinced that the new products violate California law, they agree that Reynolds’ marketing campaign reflects a decades-long effort by tobacco companies to protest and flout government regulations.

Dr. Robert Jackler, professor of medicine at Stanford, who provided the ads to The New York Times, called the new marketing “outrageous.”

“What surprises me is that there is no camouflage,” said Dr. Jackler, who received the mail along with members of Stanford’s Tobacco Advertising Program. “They say, ‘This is our menthol substitute.’ And by the way – wink, wink – it’s not actually menthol.

Mail collected from Camel by Dr. Jackler is directed to Californians.credit…via Robert Jackler

California’s tobacco flavoring ban originally took shape as a law passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020. Reynolds and others collected signatures to allow voters to decide through a referendum on the issue. In November, 63 percent of voters approved the ban.

In mid-December, the US Supreme Court refused to block the law, denying Reynolds’ request. The company cited “significant financial losses” as a likely result of the ban, given that menthol cigarettes make up a third of the cigarette market. The company also noted that if the ban goes into effect, its customers “may never pledge the same brand loyalty.”

The company has already asked the Supreme Court to hear a separate appeal against Los Angeles County’s fragrance ban, which was passed in 2019.

Bans on flavored tobacco products have been enacted in Massachusetts and dozens of cities and counties. Several states and numerous local governments have banned flavored e-cigarettes. California law also applies to vaping products.

The California Department of Public Health said it has provided access to tobacco retailers about the law, but that “enforcement is left to local jurisdictions.” Reynolds’ marketing campaign was previously reported on LA Taco news site.

Menthol is a prime target for those looking to cut down on smoking, as it imparts a cool, minty sensation that often appeals to young smokers and masks the harshness of tobacco. Studies show that the products were marketed strongly to black people.

Carol McGruder, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Management Council and a supporter of the state law, said the new ads didn’t surprise her.

“This is racist, predatory marketing,” Ms McGruder said. She added that public health officials must constantly respond to tobacco companies’ tactics “when they’re trying to stay alive — using addicted, lifelong customers.”

Flyers about the new products were mailed to Reynolds customers who had searched for coupons. These included advertisements for “new” Camel and Newport varieties with a “bold, lasting taste.” The company ingredient records show that the Camel Crisp and Newport EXP versions contain a synthetic cooling agent listed as WS-3according to Sven Jord, a researcher at Duke University who has written about the compound in electronic cigarettes.

Dr. Jord said the chemical has a cooling effect but no minty smell or taste, and that the health effects of the additive are unknown. While other countries have banned flavored tobacco or menthol, he said, only Germany and Belgium have banned this particular additive.

Reynolds’ Mr Pinto said chilling cigarettes “are not subject to the recent ban because they have no distinct taste or aroma other than tobacco”.

A spokesman for Altria, which sells Marlboro cigarettes, said the company has stopped selling menthol cigarettes in California and is in compliance with the new law.

Globally, tobacco companies have found loopholes to ban menthol or flavored tobacco, studies show. in Canadaflavor cards and supplement drops were used to supplement unflavored products. in Denmarksmokers now have access to menthol sprays, capsules and tubes.

The framers of the California law were mindful of international experience by banning scented accessories and any claims that advertise a scented product. For Dr. Pamela Ling, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UC San Francisco, the message is clear.

“If you squint at the ads, you’ll see this as a fragrance product, whether it says so or not,” Dr Ling said. “The colors, the packaging, the associations your brain makes with the look and feel — that overrides the text that says this isn’t menthol.”

Ads and packaging that so vividly suggest flavor place a clear responsibility on California officials to respond to Reynolds, said Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

“This is really Reynolds challenging California to say, ‘I don’t think you’re serious,'” Mr. Myers said. If the state fails to take decisive action, he added, “the industry will flee again.”

Products marketed as “new” also appear to challenge the FDA’s authority, according to Micah Berman, associate professor of public health and law at Ohio State University. Under the Tobacco Control Act, products introduced after 2007 must be approved by the agency, in part to prevent tobacco companies from innovating to make their products more attractive.

“I think it’s something the FDA needs to go back and look at,” Mr. Berman said.

Whether the products were authorized — and whether they were “new” as advertised — was difficult for FDA officials to immediately determine. That’s because 2016 legal defeat because the agency allows cigarette companies to change the product name without informing the FDA. To find out which cigarette is in a particular pack, the agency typically examines or inspects records at a manufacturing facility, said Mitch Zeller, former director of the FDA’s tobacco division. .

The agency cleaned a camel capsule product with an “alternative menthol” flavor in 2021. Reynolds declined to provide The Times with the permit records for the California menthol-free cigarettes.

Abigail Capobianco, FDA spokeswoman, said the agency is closely monitoring compliance with federal tobacco laws and regulations and that it has taken corrective action when violations have occurred. But she declined to comment on the new products in California. The agency said it is finalizing its menthol rule and “will not allow businesses to undermine the intent” of the product standard.

California’s approach to the products will be an important example of how a national menthol ban could play out, Dr. Ling said.

Reynolds “tested it,” Dr. Ling said. “If they can pull this off in California, they’ll be perfectly poised to circumvent the federal ban everywhere else.”

Adam Liptak contributed reporting.


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