WASHINGTON (AP) — For the first time, U.S. health regulators have endorsed a brand of tobacco pouches as less harmful than cigarettes, a decision that could open the door to other less risky options for smokers.

The milestone announcement on Tuesday from the Food and Drug Administration marks the government’s first backing of a so-called “reduced risk” tobacco product.

regulators stressed, though, that the Swedish Match pouches are not
safe, just less harmful, and that all tobacco products pose risks. The
pouches will still bear mandatory government warnings that they can
cause mouth cancer, gum disease and tooth loss.

But the company
will be able to advertise its tobacco pouches as posing a lower risk of
lung cancer, bronchitis, heart disease and other diseases than

The pouches of ground tobacco, called snus —
pronounced “snoose” — have been popular in Scandinavian countries for
decades but are a tiny part of the U.S. tobacco market.

stick the teabag-like pouches between their cheek and gum to absorb
nicotine. Unlike regular chewing tobacco, the liquid from snus is
generally swallowed, rather than spit out. Chewing tobacco is fermented;
snus goes through a steamed pasteurization process.

Swedish Match sells its snus under the brand name, General, in mint, wintergreen and other flavors.

acting commissioner Ned Sharpless said the agency based its decision on
long-term, population-level data showing lower levels of lung cancer,
emphysema and other smoking-related disease with the use of snus.

added that the agency will closely monitor Swedish Match’s marketing
efforts to ensure they target adult tobacco users.

“Anyone who does not currently use tobacco products, especially youth, should refrain from doing so,” he said in a statement.

U.S. smoking rate has fallen to an all-time low of 14% of adults, or
roughly 34 million Americans. But smoking remains the leading cause of
preventable disease and death in the U.S., responsible for some 480,000
deaths annually.

The FDA’s decision has been closely watched by both public health experts and tobacco companies.

Public health experts have long hoped that alternatives like the pouches could benefit Americans who are unable or unwilling to quit cigarettes and other traditional tobacco products. Tobacco companies are looking for new products to sell as they face declining cigarette demand due to tax increases, health concerns, smoking bans and social stigma.

The FDA itself also has much at stake in the review of snus and similar tobacco alternatives.

gave the FDA the power to regulate key aspects of the tobacco industry
in 2009, including designating new tobacco products as “modified risk,”
compared with traditional cigarettes, chew and other products.

But until Tuesday, the FDA had never granted permission for any product to make such claims.

The FDA is reviewing several other products vying for “reduced risk” status, including a heat-not-burn cigarette alternative made by Philip Morris International. While electronic cigarettes are generally considered less harmful than the tobacco-and-paper variety, they have not been scientifically reviewed as posing a lower risk.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

By Matthew Perrone

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