FDA continues to thwart less risky tobacco alternatives

We recently talked about the FDA’s choice to make cigars more expensive through labeling restrictions, despite the fact that they are one of the least popular choices in tobacco products among vulnerable children. But there’s another product on the market which could use a bit of relief in the labeling department. Have you ever heard of Snus? They came from Sweden and they’re little packets, similar to tea bags, which are used as smokeless tobacco alternative. That doesn’t make them “safe” by any stretch of the imagination, but as this article from How Stuff Works explains, while still not a “healthy choice” for anyone, the risks for Snus users are at least decreased significantly compared to cigarettes.

According to tobacco researchers, a snus user is 90 percent less likely to get cancer than a smoker [source: Levy et al.]. Because there’s no combustion when someone consumes snus, carcinogenic chemicals that lead to lung cancer like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (the byproduct of combustion of the tar in cigarettes), aren’t present. In fact, researchers report that there’s no statistical difference in lung cancer rates between snus users and those who never use tobacco in any form [source: Foulds et al.].

Unlike dip and chew, which contain higher levels of TSNAs resulting from the fermentation of the tobacco, snus doesn’t present a risk of oral or other head cancers [source: Gartner et al.]. On the other hand, smoking doubles the risk of oral cancer and increases the risk of lung cancer tenfold [source: Gartner et al.].

When the FDA granted their premarket tobacco application (PMTA) approval for Snus in 2015 they seemed to acknowledge at the time that the health risks were reduced.

According to the FDA press release, “[t]he PMTA decisions for these products reflect evidence showing that these products, marketed as described in the manufacturer’s application, would result in a low likelihood of new initiation, delayed cessation or relapse . . . [and] that these products would likely provide less toxic options if current adult smokeless tobacco users used them exclusively.” However, the press release emphasizes that the company may not claim that the products are “FDA approved,” and that the company must receive a separate modified risk tobacco product (MRTP) authorization in order to make any claims of reduced exposure or reduced risk. Swedish Match North America, Inc. has submitted MRTP applications to make such claims for at least some products bearing the “General” brand name, and these MRTP applications were reviewed by the Tobacco Product Scientific Advisory Committee in April of 2015.

Still, just as they’ve done with cigars, the FDA seems determined to deny Snus a Modified Risk Tobacco Product Application (MRTPA). The manufacturer isn’t asking to have the product labeled as health food, but simply to carry fewer warning labels which research shows don’t apply to Snus to begin with. This may sound like a good deal for the manufacturer in marketing terms (and perhaps it is) but it’s also a helpful deal for the consumer.

If you’re trying to quit smoking but can’t manage to beat the addiction you’re probably looking for some options which are at least somewhat safer than cigarettes. That may mean vaping or cigars or, in this case, something like Snus. But if they all have the same scary labels, why make the change? Consumers should at least have the information at hand to allow them to make an informed choice. But for some reason the FDA continues to try to beat down every product in this market sector with the same hammer.