'Smokeless cigarette' fires up health groups

November 29, 1994|By Newsday

The nation's three largest nonprofit health organizations asked the federal Food and Drug Administration yesterday to regulate a new "smokeless cigarette" being tested by the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco company.

A letter sent yesterday by the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and American Lung Association urges the FDA to require health studies and control any sale of the product, because it delivers a drug, nicotine.

The three groups expressed concern that the product -- tentatively called Eclipse and being tested with focus groups in several markets across the United States -- would be a new attempt by the tobacco industry to encourage young nonsmokers to start using cigarettes.

FDA spokesman Jim O'Hara said yesterday that it was "premature" to comment.

The request is only the start of what appears to be the latest volley in the battle over smoking.

In recent years, many municipalities have passed tough laws to eliminate smoking in restaurants, government buildings and other public places.

An estimated 420,000 Americans die annually from cigarette smoking, and another 30,000 to 60,000 die from "secondhand" smoke.

But R. J. Reynolds officials say much of the health risk associated with tobacco is caused by carcinogens and tar in the smoke -- which they say are gone from their new product.

"This is the first cigarette that offers no tar and ultralow levels of nicotine," said Maura Ellis, a spokeswoman for R. J. Reynolds, based in Winston-Salem, N.C. "There's been enough positive feedback in the focus groups to convince us to keep going."

The company says it does not need FDA approval if it decides to market Eclipse in stores. "They don't have jurisdiction over cigarettes -- and we consider this a cigarette," said Ms. Ellis.

Eclipse users light a special charcoal tip rather than burning the tobacco, eliminating ashes and odor, the company says. Heated air passes through a cylinder containing processed tobacco and glycerin, picking up tobacco flavor and nicotine along the way. R. J. Reynolds has reportedly invested $500 million in Eclipse, one of several next-generation cigarettes in development. Tobacco industry officials say they are adapting to increasing public concern about health effects of smoke.

"The introduction of this [cigarette] probably won't cause any rollbacks of the current laws," said Ms. Ellis. "But it goes to the heart of accommodating both smokers and nonsmokers. And that's a positive."

Sources said yesterday that the real battle over "smokeless" cigarettes may come next year, if R. J. Reynolds or others in the tobacco industry decide to go ahead with marketing them.

Under this scenario, the agency would decide if they are cigarettes -- currently exempt by law from FDA regulation -- or nicotine-providing devices that would fall under the FDA's purview.

Tom Brandt, a spokesman for the American Cancer Society, said the three organizations are asking for FDA regulation of "an effective mechanism for delivering a drug -- nicotine."

The three health groups already have called for the FDA to regulate all cigarettes for that reason. FDA Commissioner David Kessler has said he is considering their request, but some powerful members of the new Republican majority in Congress are less than sympathetic to such efforts.

Mr. Brandt said tobacco opponents are worried that Eclipse will send a bad message to the young. "Are you making a product that signals to young people that it's OK to start smoking again?" he said.

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