Are Those Mints or Tobacco Pellets?

A new smokeless product looks suspiciously like candy—and that's got parents worried

Smoking bans in the U.S. have been successful in lowering the number of people who smoke. Some in the tobacco industry might even say too successful. Now, worried about seeing their profits go up in smoke (sorry, couldn’t help that), one big cigarette company’s come up with some creative—and controversial—options to get around the bans.

R.J. Reynolds’s new line of flavored smokeless tobacco products are a far cry from the nasty brown goop that you have to spit into a cup. They include: spitless pouches of tobacco called snus, dissolvable lozenge strips, and orbs that resemble breath mints. In fact, the Camel Orbs look so much like Certs that researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned this week that the new tobacco products could lead to accidental poisoning in kids.

In the study, published in Pediatrics, Harvard researchers reviewed data from 61 poison control centers and identified 13,705 cases of tobacco ingestion between 2006 and 2008, the vast majority of which were in infants; smokeless tobacco products were involved in 1,768 of the cases. But researchers publicly singled out the new, dissolvable products as a major concern, saying they could easily be mistaken for candy.

Nicotine poisoning can cause nausea or vomiting, and severe cases can result in convulsions, respiratory failure, and even death. There’s also the fear that kids who ingest the candy, whether on purpose or by accident, may become addicted to the nicotine. Obviously, tons of other poisonous household items like cosmetics, painkillers and cleaners can look just as tantalizing to little kids, and it is a parent's responsibility to keep anything toxic out of reach. However, adding nicotine to products that look identical to candy won't just make it harder for kids to discern its safety—adults could have a harder time policing it, too. Of course, candy-flavored tobacco probably doesn’t sound, or look, as cool as cigarettes to teens. Still, using it at school or even while sitting at home with the family may be an easy and tempting way to feel like they’re pulling one over on clueless adults. As one teen interviewed in the New York Times article pointed out that, “Kids can sit in class, you know, and use it and nobody would know.”

That was the idea behind the marketing of these smoke-free products to adults: offer an inconspicuous option for smokers to get their nicotine fix when cigarettes aren’t allowed. Yep, the snus, orbs and strips—which reportedly deliver less nicotine than cigarettes do—are apparently not meant to replace cigarettes altogether. Instead, they’re geared towards tiding you over until your next cigarette break. From a business standpoint, it’s brilliant. R.J. Reynolds has found a way to help people “break free" from smoking bans, as they put it on their Web site and feed their addiction anytime and anywhere.

But it’s precisely those attributes—the inconspicuous packaging and the ability to consume them almost anywhere—that have parents so worried.

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