RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has asked scientists and other experts to study flavored melt-in-your-mouth tobacco products, known as dissolvables. The panel is weighing two points of view, those who worry that dissolvables are a gateway to smoking, and those who claim they help people kick the habit. Taunya English of member station WHYY reports.
TAUNYA ENGLISH, BYLINE: Twenty-four-year-old Rutgers University law student Gregory Conley pops a dissolvable during class or while he's studying.
GREGORY CONLEY: They are a toothpick that is covered in finely milled dissolvable tobacco. Two different mints and two different tobacco-like flavors. And you just put it in your mouth and hold it as if you were holding a piece of straw between your teeth.
ENGLISH: They deliver a slight nicotine tingle that Conley says helps curb cravings.
CONLEY: I was never really going to stop. I had tried with the traditional methods and found them completely unhelpful - the patch and the gum and the lozenge.
ENGLISH: Conley finally gave up smoking using electronic cigarettes, which are smokeless. And he says dissolvables keep him on track. The government regulates dissolvables like other smokeless products such as chew and snuff, and the warning labels are similar.
CONLEY: This product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes. This product can cause gum disease and tooth loss. And smokeless tobacco is addictive.
ENGLISH: Companies can't market dissolvables as a stop smoking aid. Some health officials and a group of U.S. senators have called them nicotine candy and want the FDA to tighten the rules. Conley hopes it won't.
CONLEY: The public health people are saying, oh, we need to wait. We need to still get more data. Every day and every year that they wait to tell the truth about the relative risks of different tobacco products, more people are dying.
ENGLISH: Conley is so convinced, he volunteers with the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association and testified during the FDA's meetings this week.
University of Michigan health economist Kenneth Warner says the FDA is hearing from both sides of a long-running debate.
KENNETH WARNER: The one extreme are the folks who believe that no product containing nicotine or tobacco should be permitted on the market unless it has undergone review. The other extreme is to say that any product that superficially appears to be significantly less risky than cigarette smoking should be permitted on the market to allow consumers to have a less hazardous option.
ENGLISH: Warner says it's the FDA's job to consider the health consequences for the entire population, not just individual smokers. He hasn't seen solid evidence supporting the benefits or harms from dissolvables. He says the panel has to look at all the science.
WARNER: It is under enormous political pressure from both sides.
ENGLISH: Some health officials worry young people will try dissolvables, develop a taste for nicotine, then graduate to smoking. They also wonder if dissolvables keep people hooked.
Bill Godshall leads the group SmokeFree Pennsylvania. He's afraid the questions before the tobacco advisory committee will inevitably lead to a ban on dissolvables.
BILL GODSHALL: You know, asking might children choke or die if they swallow accidentally some of these - well, yeah, that's always a possibility, but the FDA doesn't ban every medicine in your medicine chest.
ENGLISH: Lots of doctors and coaches who help people quit say they welcome anything that will help their patients break free of cigarettes, and some are quietly recommending dissolvables as a first step. Others say they'll wait for a ruling from the Food and Drug Administration.
For NPR News, I'm Taunya English.
MONTAGNE: And that report is part of a project on health in the states, a partnership of NPR, Kaiser Health News, and WHYY.
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