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FDA Approves Smokeless Tobacco Product, But Warns That None Are Completely Safe


For the first time, the Food and Drug Administration has given a green light to the maker of a smokeless tobacco product to advertise that it is less harmful than smoking cigarettes. The approval comes in the middle of an outbreak of vaping illnesses. And as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, it sets the stage for other companies that sell similar products to follow suit and seek approval of a reduced-risk claim.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: There's no such thing as risk-free tobacco products, but the FDA has determined it has enough evidence to show that a brand of smokeless tobacco products called General snus is less harmful than smoking cigarettes. Snus is a Swedish term for snuff, and Kyle Roseberry of the Georgetown Tobacco shop in Washington, D.C., says he sells a lot of it. He walks me to a small refrigerator where it's on display.

KYLE ROSEBERRY: Keeps it chilled, yes. It's the only product made, tobacco-wise, that you keep chilled.

AUBREY: Inside, he shows me pouches that look like little tea bags filled with smokeless tobacco.

ROSEBERRY: There are different flavors - so original, white, mint, wintergreen.

AUBREY: It's similar to chewing tobacco, but Roseberry says with snus, there's no spitting.

ROSEBERRY: Put it in your upper mouth against your cheek, and let it sit there.

AUBREY: The nicotine absorbs into the bloodstream. So Roseberry says, you don't inhale anything into your lungs, and there's no smoke.

ROSEBERRY: It's inconspicuous. Nobody even knows you're doing it.

AUBREY: Jerry Rorte (ph) is vice president of Swedish Match North America. He says the company is now allowed to change its marketing and advertising in the U.S.

JERRY RORTE: The exact claim that we will be allowed to make is, using General snus instead of cigarettes put you at a lower risk of mouth cancer, heart disease, lung cancer, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

AUBREY: But the FDA says despite this lower risk claim, it's important for people to understand that all tobacco products, including snus, do pose a risk. Nicotine is addictive. Rorte says snus has been produced for more than 200 years in Sweden, and its health impacts have been studied and compared to smoking. Swedish Match has been able to demonstrate that its process, which is different from the way most chew or snuff products are made, can help lower the concentration of some harmful compounds.

RORTE: In effect, it greatly reduces the unwanted compounds that are formed naturally after tobacco is caught and it's cured.

AUBREY: Rorte points to a specific part of the process that may help reduce the risk. Instead of heating the tobacco to cure it, they use a process to air dry it. This helps to reduce the formation of cancer-causing compounds known as nitrosamines.

RORTE: By getting rid of the fire curing and using air curing, you keep the nitrosamine levels quite low.

AUBREY: The typical snus users, Rorte says, are men in their 20s and 30s. He says the company will not target or market to teens, which is part of the agreement with the FDA. But Paul Billings of the American Lung Association says his organization has a lot of questions about this agreement.

PAUL BILLINGS: We're very concerned that consumers are going to underestimate the harm of tobacco products.

AUBREY: At a time when 25% of high school seniors report vaping, Billings argues, there should be a sharp focus on preventing teens from trying any nicotine product.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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