R.J. Reynolds tobacco company said Wednesday morning it would significantly expand the marketing of its experimental Eclipse cigarette, with the launch of an advertising campaign that will make controversial health claims for the low-smoke product.
The bold initiative, which will also feature the first age-restricted Internet site for on-line cigarette sales, comes less than a month after the Supreme Court ruled that the Food and Drug Administration does not have the power to regulate tobacco.
It represents a major push by the cigarette maker, whose 20-year, $1 billion effort to develop a marketable low-smoke cigarette has met with repeated failure.
The high-tech cigarettes, which burn almost no tobacco, have been available for the past few years only in small test markets in Chattanooga, Tenn., Lincoln, Neb., and parts of Atlanta. But starting Wednesday, RJR will release magazine and direct marketing advertisements, focused especially in the Dallas/Fort Worth area but visible nationwide.
The ads will present Eclipse as the next best thing to quitting. They will also make the specific and unprecedented claims that, compared to smoking conventional cigarettes, smoking Eclipse ``may reduce the risk of smoking-associated cancers'' and lower the risk of lung disease.
The ads will not claim that Eclipse is any less likely than other cigarettes to cause cardiovascular disease or pregnancy complications, two major health problems associated with smoking, because the data for those areas remains inconclusive, company officials said.
``The public is well informed of the risks of smoking, as they should be,'' said RJR chairman and CEO Andrew J. Schindler, as he unveiled the initiative at the annual shareholders meeting in Winston-Salem, N.C., Wednesday morning. ``Reynolds tobacco is committed to developing new cigarettes or processes that may present less risk to smokers.''
But the marketing offensive drew immediate criticism from public health experts and anti-smoking groups.
``RJR appears to be brazenly challenging the federal government because of the Supreme Court's withdrawal of FDA authority over tobacco,'' said Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. ``RJR is making unsubstantiated health claims because it knows there is no federal agency with broad authority over this industry.''
Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, who proposed the FDA assert authority over tobacco products, said he thought RJR's health claims could give the agency grounds to regulate Eclipse.
``The Supreme Court ruled on ordinary cigarettes,'' Kessler said. ``These are in a whole different category. This is not an ordinary cigarette. There are very strong arguments that these are novel nicotine delivery devices and fall within FDA's jurisdiction.''
FDA officials said they had no immediate comment.
Eclipse looks much like a normal cigarette - albeit one that never gets shorter as it is smoked. A smoker lights it like a normal cigarette, which ignites a heating element. When the smoker draws on the filter-tip end, the heat passes over tobacco and other ingredients in a paper tube, delivering smoke, flavor, nicotine and other chemicals. But because Eclipse heats rather than burns tobacco, it produces 80 percent less second-hand smoke and that smoke contains significantly lower levels of many chemicals harmful to health.
Cigarette smoke from conventional cigarettes, for example, contains about 80 percent ``tar'' and nicotine, and about 20 percent water and glycerine, a naturally occurring syrup that contributes taste and keeps tobacco moist. In Eclipse, those figures are reversed.
All told, Eclipse cigarettes have 3 milligrams of tar, a level between that seen in ``light'' and ``ultralight'' cigarettes. The smoke contains about 4 percent nicotine, versus 7 percent in a typical light cigarette, but the amount of nicotine that gets into the blood and brain is the same as from an ultralight cigarette.
Focusing on specific chemicals of concern in cigarettes, company officials said that, compared to ``light'' cigarettes, Eclipse had a 95 percent reduction in ``vapor phase free radicals,'' a 90 percent reduction in benzopyrene, and a 95 percent reduction in hydrogen cyanide.
Scientists have disputed the idea that cigarettes with lower levels of tar and other chemicals are safer. Recent evidence from conventional ``low-tar'' cigarettes, for example, suggests that they cause cancers lower in the lung, but not less frequently.
The change in tumor location may be due in part to the fact that smokers of low-tar cigarettes tend to take bigger, deeper and more frequent puffs - behavioral changes that RJR officials said have also emerged in tests of Eclipse.
But Schindler and other RJR officials said the company had conducted an unprecedented amount of scientific research to document Eclipse's health benefits compared to ordinary cigarettes. Studies on cell and tissue cultures, mice, rats, hamsters and people were conducted by RJR scientists, university researchers and independent scientists, they said. One series of tests demonstrated a 90 percent reduction in the number of tumors that appeared in animals exposed to the smoke, compared to conventional cigarettes.
The data were reviewed by a panel of health experts led by Bernard M. Wagner, a retired professor of pathology from New York University Medical Center.