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UST Puts Profits Ahead of Public Health in Seeking to Claim that Smokeless Tobacco Products are Safer than Cigarettes

Statement of Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
February 06, 2002

Washington, DC — In the guise of claiming that it wants to reduce the harm caused by tobacco use, UST Inc. has embarked on a strategy that risks achieving the opposite result by addicting a new generation of smokeless tobacco users. UST, the nation's largest smokeless tobacco company, has asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to issue an advisory opinion that would allow the company to advertise its smokeless tobacco products as less hazardous than cigarettes. There are two particular causes of concern. UST made similar claims about its products 20 years ago and the result was a marketing campaign that generated millions of new tobacco users – mostly kids – not fewer tobacco deaths. And the FTC lacks the necessary authority over UST's products and how they are marketed to prevent history from repeating itself.

UST's own filing offers the best reason for the FTC to deny its request. Despite the conclusions of Congress, the U.S. Surgeon General and numerous scientific studies that smokeless tobacco products cause serious diseases, including cancer, UST's filing argues that 'smokeless tobacco has not been shown to be the cause of any human disease.' A tobacco company that continues to deny the harm caused by its products should not be allowed to make health claims about them. This is not the first time that UST has engaged in such deception or sought to market its products as a safer alternatives. Twenty years ago, the smokeless tobacco industry was in decline. Then UST and other companies introduced a new set of products that were marketed as cool and less dangerous than cigarettes. UST used the slogan 'A Pouch Instead of a Puff.' The result was not fewer smokers, but more kids addicted to smokeless tobacco products. If the FTC grants UST's request, history will repeat itself, and the benefits again will be to the company's market share and bottom line, not the public health.

This debate is not about whether tobacco companies should be encouraged to reduce the harm caused by their products. They should be. The real issue is whether these products will be developed and marketed in a regulatory environment that puts protection of the public health first. Unfortunately effective tobacco regulation does not exist today. Due to a lawsuit brought by UST and the other tobacco companies, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the right agency for the job, does not have jurisdiction over tobacco products. Due to the lobbying of UST and the other tobacco companies, Congress has refused to grant the FDA effective authority over the manufacturing, marketing and sale of tobacco products. If UST were serious about reducing the harm caused by tobacco use, it would join the public health community in urging Congress to pass the real FDA legislation that has been introduced in both the House and the Senate (H.R. 1097 and S. 247). UST has failed to do so.

Instead, UST chose to approach the FTC, an agency that it knows lacks the scientific expertise or the public health mandate to achieve the goal of reducing the death and disease caused by tobacco use. The FTC, for example, lacks the authority to ensure that tobacco products labeled as reduced risk are not marketed to deter smokers from quitting or to entice new tobacco users to start. The FTC also could not restrict themes, images and statements in advertising even if their primary appeal is to children. It could not restrict the placement of these ads in venues effective at reaching kids, including in youth-oriented magazines such as Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated where UST irresponsibly continues to advertise. UST's Rooster brand, for example, has been running ads in Rolling Stone and other magazines with the slogan 'Cock-a-doodle freakin' do.' The FTC would have no authority to curtail this kind of advertising, and UST would be free to make its product even more enticing to customers – whether they are adults or teenage boys playing baseball – by adding a new tag line that the product poses an acceptable risk.

It is especially disturbing that UST's request denies that smokeless tobacco products causes disease given its recent admission, under threat of legal sanction, that they do cause harm. In April 1999, a spokesperson for UST, quoted in the Providence Journal, claimed that 'smokeless tobacco has not been scientifically established to be a cause of oral cancer.' The Rhode Island Attorney General subsequently filed a legal action against UST for violating provisions of the 1998 state tobacco settlement (Master Settlement Agreement) prohibiting false statements about the health effects of tobacco products. As a result, UST was required to acknowledge that 'the Surgeon General and other public health authorities have concluded that the use of smokeless tobacco can cause oral cancer and is addictive.' The company also agreed to pay $15,000 to the Rhode Island Attorney General's office to help fund tobacco prevention programs. UST's continued deception about the harm caused by its products is powerful evidence that it is not acting responsibly and its request to the FTC for an advisory opinion should be denied.