Why did Philip Morris’s new smokeless tobacco product (“Taboka”) deliver almost no nicotine?

Recently I mentioned that Philip Morris (biggest selling US cigarette manufacturer) plans to test-market a new smokeless tobacco product called “Marlboro Snus” in Dallas. In 2006 the company tested a similar product, which they called “Taboka” in Indianapolis. The company presented some information to health professionals at a meeting in Boston last year, and some of the details were rather puzzling (to me at least).

The kind of smokeless tobacco that has proven to be rather successful in Sweden, and is referred to as “snus” (Swedish for snuff) is a moist snuff, typically containing about 50% water. It is typically alkaline (ph around 8) and can deliver a dose of nicotine comparable to a cigarette. However, Taboka is a dry tobacco product (about 12% moisture content), is less alkaline (which impairs nicotine delivery) and in fact delivers almost no nicotine (certainly not enough to be enjoyable for a smoker).

To give you a sense of typical nicotine deliveries by different tobacco products, when a smoker smokes a cigarette their blood nicotine concentration typically increases by 10-20 ng/ml within 10 minutes. When a smokeless tobacco user uses a typical dose of loose snuff (eg General Snus or Copenhagen snuff) they can get an increase in blood nicotine levels of around 8-16 ng/ml within 15-20 minutes. But when people used a Taboka sachet their blood nicotine concentration only increased by 1-2 ng/ml.

So why is the biggest tobacco company in the United States, with hundreds of research scientists at its disposal, and decades of experience in selling nicotine in a stick, apparently trying to launch a product that doesn’t deliver anything close to an adequate dose of its key ingredient? In all honesty I don’t know the answer. But here’s my theory:

Philip Morris may know fine and well that an almost nicotine-free smokeless tobacco product is about as useful to consumers as a chocolate teapot. Philip Morris may also know precisely what level of nicotine delivery is required to provide “satisfaction” (satisfaction is tobacco-industry speak for addictiveness and is virtually interchangeable with nicotine delivery). Philip Morris has by far the largest share (around 50%) of the US cigarette market. Philip Morris wants the status quo to continue. It therefore may not want lots of smokers switching from its deadly cigarettes to a much less harmful smokeless product. But it doesn’t want to run the legal risk of losing a court case on the basis that it needlessly caused people to die of lung cancer when they could have sold tobacco products that don’t cause lung cancer (smokeless tobacco doesn’t cause lung cancer, and snus doesn’t even cause oral cancer, unlike cigarettes). So how do they minimize risks? Firstly by supporting a bill in Congress that will allow the FDA to regulate tobacco in a way that makes it more difficult to launch new products that claim to be less harmful than regular cigarettes (Philip Morris supports the current FDA regulation bill – the only major tobacco company to do so). Secondly, they claim to have spent millions of dollars trying to get smokers to switch to a less harmful smokeless product, but unfortunately find that smokers don’t really like the much less harmful (and less addictive) smokeless product they offered. So the product dies a death, smokers keep smoking one of the dozens of varieties of lethal Marlboro cigarettes, and the company can claim in court that they tried, but smokers really just want to keep puffing on their yummy cigarettes.

So am I suggesting that Philip Morris may have created a product that was specifically designed to fail? Yes. Just as surely as it would appear that way if the Ford Motor Company launched a new pollution-free car, but gave it square wheels. One would have to assume that they would know better. In these scenarios either Philip Morris and Ford are completely stupid (and I don’t think that’s very likely) or they have a different agenda – one that requires the new product to fail.

Phillip Morris have not yet revealed whether their new Marlboro Snus product delivers a better hit of nicotine than Taboka did. If at least one of their new “snus” products doesn’t deliver at least 3-4 times the nicotine dose as Taboka, I am going to stick with the view that this test market launch is also intentionally designed to fail.
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About the Author

MA, MAppSci, PhD

Dr. Jonathan Foulds is an expert in the field of tobacco addiction.