As the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues its regulation of the tobacco category, manufacturers are developing products that are less harmful, fly under the government’s regulatory eye and may even help customers quit traditional cigarettes.
The FDA announced plans in June to implement a maximum nicotine level to reduce the addictiveness of cigarettes and certain other combusted tobacco products.
The question for convenience store retailers becomes: is there a way to offer a true alternative to tobacco cigarettes and one that is not nicotine-based that would appeal to customers looking to reduce their nicotine intake?
One way, according to Ray Johnson, the owner and operator of 22 Speedee Mart convenience stores in Las Vegas and Henderson, Nev., is with a nicotine-free cigarette called TAAT. TAAT is marketed as offering smokers “tobacco flavor, scent and ritual with zero nicotine and zero tobacco.”
“It doesn’t have any nicotine (or tobacco) in it, but it smells and tastes like tobacco,” Johnson explained. “If you are trying to reduce your nicotine intake, you are still getting the smoke, and it tastes like you are getting a cigarette, but you are not getting the nicotine. I think it’s going to be a product that will be in higher and higher demand.”
Speedee Mart carries three TAAT SKUs. The chain also stocks a pair of SKUs of Kong Hemp Cigarettes.
Johnson has also expressed interest in 22nd Century Group’s VLN brand, which contains at least 95% less nicotine as compared to conventional cigarettes sold in the U.S., but he’ll need to wait for the product to arrive in his market. Currently, VLN has been rolled out in a small number of test markets. VLN uses genetically modified tobacco plants that produce less nicotine, and it is the first combustible cigarette authorized by the FDA.
“A non-nicotine alternative to cigarettes is a unique solution for public health to move adults away from tobacco and nicotine products completely,” noted Lindsey Stroud, director, consumer center for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance in Washington, D.C.
Preparing for Tomorrow
“You keep reading that the FDA wants to make menthol illegal, and they want to reduce the nicotine levels in cigarettes,” said Johnson. “We have this war on tobacco, and at the same time the states are saying, ‘Oh, we like marijuana now.’ But the war on tobacco is not going away; it just keeps right on going.”
But FDA regulations aren’t likely to change customer demand for smoking, he said.
“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle and tell people ‘You can’t smoke,’” Johnson continued. “The people who want to smoke are going to smoke, so you find them something that’s government approved. My goal always is, what can I legally do, and make a profit and make the customer happy?”
For Johnson, incorporating nicotine-free smoking products like TAAT into his tobacco set can only offer opportunity and position him for the future of the category.
“To me, the trend is going to go this way, and I try to always jump out early on stuff,” he said. “It’s a low risk for me to try new products like this, but then I like people to know that anything new, you will see here first.”
“The future of any novel smoking product is based on several factors: how they market their products and whether there is a major uptick in youth use of these products,” said Stroud. “While the FDA has authority to regulate nicotine tobacco products and was recently granted authority to regulate non-tobacco derived nicotine, the FDA has limited authority in addressing any possible youth use of non-FDA-regulated smoking products.”
Convenience stores will continue to meet the regulatory challenges on behalf of their customers.
“The government keeps throwing challenges at us,” Johnson concluded. “‘How are you going to stay in business when we keep giving you these new rules?’ Now they want to change the warning signs. It’s endless stuff, and you’ve got to figure out what you can do to maintain this category and make the government happy.”