Opinion: Modify the Risk, Enhance the Future
In late November, I saw something I never thought they’d see: The New York Times printed a story about a tobacco company without its usual vitriol and animosity. The story, “A Lesser Warning? Maybe,” detailed the efforts of Swedish Match to “do something that no (tobacco) company has done before: spur a reshaping of American tobacco policy and regulation, and the conventional wisdom around it.
By submitting copious filings for review and analysis, Swedish Match is requesting that the FDA allow it to market its snus products as ‘modified risk tobacco products.’ ” The article goes on to say that Swedish Match is in some ways paving the way for other tobacco companies and other tobacco products to provide evidence that their products promote tobacco harm reduction.
Swedish Match needs to be applauded for taking this unprecedented step, incurring significant costs and investing other resources in this endeavor. Also, the FDA needs to be acknowledged for taking the filing seriously and for going on the record, as Center for Tobacco Products (CTP) director Mitch Zeller has, in supporting methods that permit cleaner, less harmful methods of nicotine delivery.
If this strategy with the FDA is successful and it results in Swedish Match being allowed to market and sell its snus products with packaging and labeling stating that its products are less harmful than other forms of tobacco, then we will have reached a watershed moment in the tobacco industry.
An Important Move
Many of us in the industry have known for a long time that there is a continuum of risk among tobacco products. The FDA’s CTP has acknowledged this. Unfortunately, few other important groups made the acknowledgment—primarily public health groups, federal and state legislators and certain academics and researchers who have historically made their reputations and their incomes attacking, restricting and seeking to ban tobacco of all shapes, sizes and types.
For them it makes no sense to admit to anything with respect to tobacco, much less that some forms are less harmful than others. But despite the critics, there are also reasonable and responsible health organizations and professionals who recognize that modified risk is well worth the effort.
So this raises the question: Why is this move by Swedish Match so important to the industry? It’s important for a number of reasons.
First, it highlights what it never hurts to state: that there are responsible tobacco companies who want to work with legislators and regulators when it’s appropriate. The modified-risk category was established in 2009’s Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. The fact that it was written into the legislation, then passed and signed, demonstrated that many in Congress and some in the administration had an appreciation that modifying tobacco risk was both achievable and worthwhile. It’s a sentiment clearly shared by Swedish Match, its directors and management.
Second, it offers every tobacco company an opportunity to seriously consider this route for one or some of its products. We all know that the tobacco trade has worked hard in other areas at the behest of legislators, notably in the area of restricting sales to minors, responsibly paying our taxes and, within reason and within the law, labeling and marketing our products. Continuing to research and develop ways to modify the harm associated with tobacco and nicotine delivery is yet another way to show our willingness to remain responsible and relevant.
Finally, it also makes sense that distributors and retailers look at these products as they come to market and commit to stocking and merchandising them. Companies willing to commit resources to securing FDA approval for their modified-risk tobacco products deserve the support of the entire supply chain.
There is no question that the tobacco landscape had changed irrevocably over the past five years. And there is certainly no question that many more changes are imminent. Companies such as Swedish Match are on the forefront of many of these changes. Other new products and new technologies are also on the market, and many more are promised down the line.
It’s an exciting time to be in the tobacco business, despite the rules, regulations, restrictions and roadblocks around the category. But it’s exciting only as long as we in the industry are willing to invest resources and support those who do.
If we are willing to do this right, it won’t just be Swedish Match who receives the positive New York Times coverage—it just might be the entire new, improved tobacco industry.