Friday, October 25, 2019

FDA Awards “Modified Risk” Status to General Brand Snus Products from Swedish Match

“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced [on October 22] that, for the first time, it has authorized the marketing of products through the modified risk tobacco product (MRTP) pathway. The authorizations are for eight Swedish Match USA, Inc. snus smokeless tobacco products sold under the ‘General’ brand name” (from the FDA press release). 

The FDA authorization allows Swedish Match to use this statement: “Using General Snus instead of cigarettes puts you at a lower risk of mouth cancer, heart disease, lung cancer, stroke, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis.”  The approval will be in place for five years, but the agency can remove it at any time if it decides that it “no longer benefits the health of the population as a whole.”

It took the FDA over five years (during which 2.56 million American smokers died prematurely) to approve this truthful statement that I have documented for 25 years.  Note, however, that the tobacco control act stacked the deck against harm reduction by mandating the term “modified risk” instead of the more accurate “reduced risk.”

The FDA announcement received favorable media attention, with one analyst calling it a “gamechanger.”  While that may be true, there are some important things to remember.

1. The company filed its original application in 2014 to change the FDA’s mandated but grossly inaccurate smokeless tobacco warning labels.  The FDA, using flawed analysis, rejected that application in December 2016, and signaled that it would not jettison the required warnings, “cause mouth cancer” and “not a safe alternative to cigarettes.”  Swedish Match then filed an amended application with the statement that was approved.

2. The approved warning refers to “lower” risk of disease, which implies that risks are still present, when, in fact, snus has no risk for mouth cancer, heart disease, lung cancer, stroke, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis.  Even worse, the FDA’s “not safe alternative” warning covering a large part of the package and advertisements annuls the “lower” risk statement from Swedish Match. 

3. Swedish Match’s success was supported by a wealth of published epidemiologic research demonstrating snus’s negative impact on smoking and smoking-related diseases among Swedish men.  While Swedish boys use snus just like their fathers, use among American youth is nearly nonexistent.  These factors set a high standard of evidence for other current MRTP applications from Philip Morris International (IQOS), Reynolds (Camel snus) and and US Tobacco (Copenhagen moist snuff).   
  • IQOS heat-not-burn tobacco.  Years of extensive research demonstrate that IQOS vapor is vastly less hazardous than smoke.  However, there is no epidemiology on the health effects of IQOS use, and there won’t be any for at least two decades.  In other countries, PMI sells IQOS devices only to adult smokers in special stores, so youth don’t have access.  PMI’s FDA application is now almost three years old (corresponding to 1.44 million dead smokers).
  • Camel snus.  Produced in the same manner as Swedish snus, Reynolds’s Camel product should qualify for MRTP status with similar labeling, but Reynolds has no epidemiology for a product introduced in the U.S. around 2005.  The MRTP application is two and a half years old (1.24 million dead smokers).
  • Copenhagen moist snuff.  The U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company took a minimalist approach in its FDA MRTP application for this statement: “Switching completely to this product from cigarettes reduces risk of lung cancer.”  Still, the FDA, concerned with under-age use of dip products, claims that 350,000 “youth under 18 years of age use smokeless tobacco for the first time” yearly.  The agency will likely cite the youth issue to deny any statement about vastly lower risks, including lung cancer.  The MRTP application is one year, seven months old (760,000 dead smokers).
  • E-cigarettes and vapor products.  The chances of these products getting an MRTP are approximately zero.  Research at American universities funded by the federal government is focused only on risks, epidemiologic studies are nonexistent, and federal officials consider vape products to be the cause of an exaggerated teen epidemic and mischaracterize them as the cause of lung injuries and deaths.  Manufacturers must first navigate widespread flavor and product bans, and then complete Premarket Tobacco Product Applications, a feat accomplished only by Swedish Match for General Snus and PMI for IQOS. 
Swedish Match should be commended for establishing a precedent for successfully navigating the Reduced (not merely modified) Risk Tobacco Product Pathway. 

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