The "less hazardous" claim eventually could win the blessing of the Food and Drug Administration. Star Scientific Inc., a company that specializes in smokeless tobacco, is seeking approval from the FDA to market two of its products as having "modified risk" under the new Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. It's a designation reserved for products that, according to the 2009 law, "significantly reduce harm and risk of tobacco-related disease to individual tobacco users."
Sweanor compared cigarette companies' shift to smokeless tobacco to automobile companies that now sell far safer cars and pharmaceutical companies that now sell life-saving drugs but that, a century ago, were "snake oil salesmen."
Altria, the country's no. 1 cigarette company, doesn't quite see it that way, making no claims that its smokeless tobacco products are any safer than its cigarettes.
"If a consumer is concerned about the harm caused by tobacco product, the best thing to do is quit," Altria spokesman David Sutton said flatly last month.
"For Altria," he later added, "the business is about providing a return to its shareholders."
The reason that Altria bought U.S. Tobacco is because the market for smokeless tobacco has been growing some 5 to 6 percent each year in recent years, Sutton said.
The purchase "was a good opportunity to acquire two leading brands in that category," he said.
Exactly why is the market for smokeless tobacco growing?
Experts say that the belief that smokeless tobacco is better for you -- or at least, less worse for you -- than cigarettes may be part of it. But the proliferation of smoking bans in the U.S., whether it's in restaurants or offices, also plays a big role.
"There's a wide variety of products at a wide variety of price points" that people can turn to when they can't light up, said Chris Growe, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus.