With a greater understanding of how smoking harms public health and the environment, consumers have pivoted to alternatives marketed as safer than cigarettes — smokeless tobacco and nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). According to an FTC report, revenue from smokeless tobacco sales rose from $4.82 billion in 2020 to $4.96 billion in 2021. Meanwhile, data from NielsenIQ Retail Measurement Service indicate that over-the-counter NRT sales amounted to nearly $1 billion annually from 2017 to 2020.
But behind this current consumer acceptance is a long process of product development and marketing in line with public health and tobacco control strategies. Below, we outline the history of smokeless tobacco and nicotine products, from their introduction to recent market innovations.
Investments in Smokeless Tobacco
Tobacco chewing practices can be traced back to the tribal teachings of American Indian/Alaska Native peoples. Big tobacco corporations like Philip Morris also explored opportunities for market entry in the 1980s. But it was only in 2002 that smokeless tobacco products were met with significant industry investments. Since then, a fact sheet by the Truth Initiative organization reveals stable use of smokeless tobacco in the US, with 2.4% of adults reporting daily or occasional use in 2020. Currently, the product is available in four types: chew, snuff, snus, and dissolvable tobacco.
Introduction of Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT)
While smokeless tobacco has already contributed to a significant decline in cigarette smoking, the introduction of NRTs has amplified the switch to smoke-free lifestyles. Aside from being non-combustible, the over-the-counter nicotine patches, gums, and lozenges that were brought into the market from the late 1990s to early 2000s were also tobacco-free, making them viable for pharmacological-based cessation.
But the emergence of nicotine pouches years after completely changed the landscape. When ZYN pouches were first introduced in the US in 2016, the products were able to capture the attention of American consumers who wanted to reduce their tobacco intake or simply didn’t like the taste of tobacco products. Aside from the snus-style packaging that allows for convenient and discreet use anytime and anywhere, the wide range of flavors and strengths provide a satisfying nicotine experience, regardless of consumer preference or smoking history.
Exploration of Harm Reduction Potential
Although the toxicant levels in smokeless tobacco vary by product type, the FDA has recognized that it is less harmful than smoking, leading to lower health risks for mouth cancer, heart disease, lung cancer, and other illnesses. This sets forth the potential of this form of tobacco to be promoted as a reduced-risk product, particularly for smokers who need to improve their health but can’t give up tobacco just yet.
Similarly, the British American Tobacco Company conducted a study in 2022 that also demonstrated the potential of nicotine pouches for harm reduction. It was found that consumers who used pouches exclusively had significantly reduced risks of developing smoking-related illnesses, mainly based on their lower biomarkers of potential harm and exposure to tobacco toxicants.
Recent Market Changes and Innovations
The market for smokeless tobacco and nicotine products is also not without changes and innovations. Tobacco giants like PMI and Altria have been making a shift towards smoke-free product portfolios, either by acquiring shares from snus manufacturers or by divesting from e-cigarettes to focus on heated tobacco and nicotine pouches. Meanwhile, global innovator Lexaria has recently started the dosing phase for its oral nicotine pouch study. The NIC-H22-1 study is fully funded to enhance the reduced-risk health outcomes of pouches through a more efficient nicotine delivery.
Taken altogether, the history of these smokeless alternatives to cigarettes can be tied to the increasing need to bring down smoking rates and, at a larger scale, improve health outcomes for smokers and the general public. Due to these products’ potential to aid in cessation and harm reduction, governments and health systems must make an effort to ensure these are being used with the intention of creating smoke-free lifestyles and environments.
Smokeless tobacco can also help with teeth health – if your teeth are a concern to you, be sure to check out our piece titled ‘Dentist Reveals the Secret to Healthy Teeth in 3 Steps or Less’