Changing Habits

The magazine ad is hardly groundbreaking. An attractive, well-dressed young blond woman flashes her pearly whites at the reader; the text asks, "Why am I smiling?" The pastel color scheme and the soft lighting are presumably intended to convey a distinctly feminine air. But in fact the ad is an attempt to sell women on what has long been considered a most unladylike habit: dipping snuff tobacco.

Even as rates of smoking have dropped significantly over the past decade, snuff sales have risen steadily, jumping by 10 percent over the last two years alone-from 64.8 million pounds in 2000 to 71.7 million last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, cigarette companies sold 65 billion fewer cigarettes last year than the 480 billion they sold in 1993. As higher taxes and increased restrictions have made taking a cigarette break an ever more difficult and expensive proposition, snuff makers are seeking to lure the nicotine-dependent with a habit they're not prohibited from doing at the office or in a restaurant. Though more than 90 percent of America's 5 million snuff users are male, manufacturers are hoping they can attract female smokers as well by removing snuff's most socially unpleasant side effect: the spitting.

Both U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., whose Skoal and Copenhagen brands dominate the snuff market, and Swedish Match, a smaller rival, are test-marketing new "spitless" products in several cities around the country. Similar to a product popular in Sweden known as snus, the companies are hoping they can attract consumers who have long been wary of traditional forms of snuff. The companies estimate that of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who try snuff each year, only a tiny fraction actually stick with it. The learning curve for snuff is high: new users often experience "float" (where the pinch of tobacco breaks apart and scatters about the mouth) and "throat-grab" (where the new user swallows the tobacco juice, which often induces vomiting). Then there is the spitting, which forces indoor users to keep a cup of yellow tobacco juice-or a potted plant-close at hand.

USSTC's solution is Revel, a small, tea-baglike pouch filled with smokeless tobacco powder and flavoring that the company hopes to launch in the U.S. next year. The pouch solves the float problem, and the flavorings help solve throat-grab by leaving a vaguely minty taste in the mouth when users swallow their saliva, For snuff makers, the market is enormous. USSTC claims that nearly half of America's 47 million cigarette smokers say they are looking for an alternative to cigarettes or something to use when they can't smoke. If even a tenth of the disaffected smokers take up snuff, that would represent a 50 percent increase in the snuff market. Snuff makers are being helped by an unlikely ally: state and local governments. While 31 states have raised cigarette taxes over the past two years, only a dozen have bothered to raise taxes on snuff and chewing tobacco. Depending on the state, that has helped make a tin of snuff as much as $1.50 cheaper than a pack of cigarettes. Other new restrictions keep smokers from lighting up in restaurants, at the office or even in bars. "Where we've started to focus is men and women 35 years or older who have to relocate 10 times plus a day to smoke," says Murray Kessler, president of USSTC.

Snuff companies are also hoping to capitalize on research that shows using snuff is not quite as dangerous as smoking cigarettes. Recent studies have shown that lifetime users of snuff are far less likely than smokers to die of a tobacco-related ailment. While snuff is linked to mouth cancer and gum disease, a report issued by Britain's Royal College of Physicians found the risks of smokeless tobacco are 10 to 1,000 times less-depending on the product-than the health problems caused by a lifetime of smoking.

But a 1986 Surgeon General's ruling prevents the companies from using that pitch-indeed all snuff tins and ads in the U.S. must carry warning labels, including one which reads "This product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes." USSTC lobbied hard to have restrictions on advertising changed earlier this year. To do so they used an analogy from the public-health campaign against AIDS: abstaining from high-risk sexual activity is the best course, but for those who can't or won't, the next best thing is to reduce risk by using a condom. Smokers who are unable to quit could reduce their risk in the same way by switching to snuff, they argue. The effort failed, but snuff companies are vowing to take the issue up again.

Public-health advocates are quick to point out that there is no conclusive evidence that lifelong smokers who switch to snuff reduce their risk of cancer. They also find it poor public policy to encourage people to switch from one cancer-causing habit to another. "People who might otherwise quit are switching to smokeless," says Eric Lindblom, manager of policy research for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. Surgeon General Richard Carmona also points out that smokers who switch to snuff remain addicted to nicotine and are likely to go back to smoking.

The main problem for the snuff makers is that the public-health community is instinctively distrustful of an industry with such a checkered past. "[USSTC] is a company with a horrible, horrible history of targeting children," says Greg Connolly, chairman of the WHO's advisory committee on smokeless tobacco. Indeed, many of today's snuff users were drawn in as teenagers during the 1980s and early '90s, when USSTC marketed Skoal aggressively to youths through advertising and by introducing candy flavors such as cherry (USSTC denies marketing to minors and its Web site includes a statement that the company "strongly believes that those who enjoy our products must be adults.") Though youth rates of use have declined steadily for the past decade, high-school boys are still nearly four times as likely as the general public to use smokeless tobacco. Connolly said he fears that USSTC will take advantage of any relaxation in advertising restrictions to again target children.

Whether the effort to change restrictions on snuff advertising succeeds, the industry has already succeeded in changing its demographics. Long considered the habit of those with big dogs, big shotguns and big pickups, snuff has gained a substantial white-collar following: 40 percent of users have spent at least some time in college, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Among them is Scott McCain, 28, a lawyer in Chicago. With a spit cup stashed in the wastebasket, he says he dips snuff "pretty much all day" while his coworkers trudge outside for a smoke. But when McCain, who is single, heads out for a night on the town, he switches to cigarettes. "The bottom line is that many women don't find it very attractive," he says. To overcome that perception, tobacco companies may need more than just slick advertising.