Smokers who must step outside for that quick fix or whose states are considering public bans may not have to worry much longer -- if a new tobacco product hits the market.
Two top U.S. tobacco companies are testing a new "pouch" product that would cease the need for lighters and matches.
Philip Morris USA has introduced Taboka, which comes in small pouches that can be placed between the lip and the gums for five minutes to 30 minutes and then thrown out. Each tin carries 12 pouches of tobacco and costs about the same as a pack of cigarettes. The company is testing the product in Indianapolis retail stores.
Also, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. is testing Camel Snus -- named after a popular and decades-old smokeless tobacco product in Sweden -- in Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore. It also costs the same as a pack of cigarettes.
Unlike chewing tobacco or similar products -- such as dip, snuff or chew -- Taboka and Camel Snus don't need to be chewed or spat out frequently. While they may be convenient, these products still carry their own health risks, albeit smaller than those associated with cigarettes, health experts say.
Smokeless tobacco is ground and pasteurized, and comes in loose and pouch form. Users usually place the product behind the upper lip.
Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds say they're developing the new pouches in response to smokers' demands.
Many smokers who use their products, they say, are looking for the most convenient ways they can enjoy nicotine, especially because of increasing smoking bans. A pouch that can be simply tossed out, the companies say, is what consumers want.
Not a Risk-Free Product
Cigarettes and smokeless tobacco pouches have about the same nicotine content.
Jonathan Foulds, director of the Tobacco Dependence Program in New Jersey, said smoking a cigarette, though, was not the same as using a smokeless tobacco pouch. The way in which nicotine is delivered makes all the difference, he says.
"You can't beat a cigarette for nicotine delivery. It's much faster and in a more concentrated form," Foulds said. "Cigarettes are like a Ferrari, and the [smokeless] pouch is like a secondhand Ford."
Both companies are targeting current adult smokers for the new product and make clear statements about the health risks associated with smokeless tobacco.
Medical experts say that although there are certain risks associated with smokeless tobacco use, the smokeless option is far safer than smoking.
"This is the crux of misinformation. Mouth cancer risks are decidedly lower for smokeless tobacco than risks for smoking," said Brad Rodu, who has been an oral pathologist for 30 years and is now a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville Cancer Center in Kentucky. He runs a Web site in support of using smokeless tobacco as a way to help smokers stop smoking cigarettes.
Foulds agreed, adding that smokeless tobacco was about 90 percent less harmful than cigarettes.
Even so, he says that mouth cancer is still a possibility and depending on the specific amount of cancer-causing ingredients in different smokeless tobacco products, the risk could be higher. Plus, there is no real way to know what U.S. tobacco companies put in their smokeless tobacco products, Foulds said.
"Part of the problem in the U.S. is that we have almost no control over what the tobacco industry does in terms of how they market these products and what they put in them. Nobody would even know. The regulatory vacuum in the U.S. is part of the problem," Foulds said.
A reduced mouth cancer risk does not erase all other health risks. Smokeless tobacco products are bad for oral health in general, because they can erode gums and cause lesions in the mouth, Foulds said. It is just as bad for pregnant women as smoking.
Can It Help Smokers Kick the Habit?
While it doesn't deliver quite as much nicotine as a cigarette, in the long run, smokeless tobacco appears to be just as addictive as cigarettes and can be just as hard to quit.
However, a lot of people in Sweden have used smokeless tobacco -- they call it snus -- to help then stop smoking, studies show. First-time tobacco users, especially young people, who start with smokeless tobacco usually don't end up smoking. If they already smoke, they're more likely to quit with the help of smokeless pouches.
In fact, Sweden has one of the lowest percentages of smokers in Europe.
So, perhaps Americans, too, can use smokeless tobacco pouches as a tool to quit smoking, Rodu said.
Foulds has a similar viewpoint.
"My angle is that two companies who have in the recent decades sold the most lethal products known to man -- cigarettes -- have moved to a product that is less harmful."
However, Tabithia Engle, executive director of the Tobacco Free Coalition of Oregon, said that smokeless tobacco pouches were not a safe alternative to smoking cigarettes because the surgeon general determined a long time ago that it caused oral cancer and could kill people. It is also as addictive as smoking, she says.
Though anti-tobacco groups like Engle's organization are pushing for reform, smokeless tobacco products are not subject to federal regulation, and Congress has never granted the Food and Drug Administration specific jurisdiction over the regulation of tobacco products.
However, Engle's group fears that informing the public about the less-harmful smokeless pouch will encourage young people to pick up the habit. Rodu disagrees.
"I don't think this is an invitation to use tobacco at all. It's very much the same as any other harm reduction approach," he said.
"For example, condoms are not an invitation for people to engage in sexual activity. These are measures to increase safety for people who choose to do so. I don't believe that the proper provision of information about safer tobacco products is an invitation to use tobacco."