Monday, February 27, 2006

University of Wyoming Planning to Help U.S. Tobacco Market Smokeless Tobacco Products

As of the writing of this post, the University of Wyoming is planning to hold a seminar on March 27, sponsored by U.S. Tobacco, whose purpose seems ostensibly to be to promote the use of smokeless tobacco among smokers who can no longer smoke in public places because of the smoke-free workplace, restaurant, and bar ordinance that went into effect last April in Laramie.

According to a communication from the University of Wyoming: "The University of Wyoming's Center for Rural Health Research and Education and our local hospital have received a grant from UST to provide programming on the UW campus about tobacco use, prevention, cessation, etc. We are planning to have a seminar on Monday, March 27, 2006. ... We hope to have a couple nationally-recognized key notes, and then provide an opportunity for UW faculty from Nursing, Pharmacy, Psychology, and other departments to present their research on the issue."

Apparently, the University of Wyoming's Center for Rural Health Research and Education (CRHRE) and Ivinson Memorial Hospital are sponsoring a public forum entitled "Living in Smoke-Free Laramie," on Monday, March 27, from 7:00 - 9:00 p.m. at the Union on the University of Wyoming campus. The purpose of the forum is "to discuss tobacco and the various health related issues of both cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products." The intent is to have at least several nationally-known speakers on these issues. The forum is being paid for by U.S. Tobacco (as of the writing of this post).

The Rest of the Story

Something struck me as rather odd when I saw that the health related issues of both cigarettes "and smokeless tobacco products" were to be discussed at a forum entitled "Living in Smoke-Free Laramie." After all, what do smokeless tobacco products have to do with living in Smoke-Free Laramie?

Wouldn't a conference on living in smoke-free Laramie focus on the effects of secondhand smoke, the benefits of reduced exposure to secondhand smoke, and perhaps on the benefits of smoking cessation (since the smoke-free law could be an incentive for many residents to quit smoking)?

But when I saw that the conference was being sponsored by UST (which owns the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, maker of Copenhagen and Skoal, each of which account for over $1 billion at retail), I figured it out.

One of the major new marketing strategies for UST to promote smokeless tobacco products is to try to attract smokers in cities that have adopted smoke-free laws, who can no longer smoke in many workplaces, bars, restaurants, and other public places.

For example, an advertisement from the May 16, 2005 issue of TIME Magazine (interestingly, very shortly after the Laramie smoking ban went into effect) shows what are apparently two "smokers" who are enjoying smokeless tobacco at a "smoke-free" sports bar. Rather than being nicotine-deprived because of the smoking ban, they are now able to enjoy the pleasure and benefits of nicotine in spite of the ban, thanks to the makers of Skoal and Copenhagen.

The ad shows two young men playing pool in a smoke-free sports bar and reads: "Enjoy tobacco in a smoke-free sports bar? Believe it."

A second ad in the series, which appeared in the May 30, 2005 issue of TIME, shows a man sitting as his office desk in a presumably smoke-free workplace and reads: "Enjoy tobacco in your office without stepping outside? Consider it done."

Clearly, this is a marketing campaign designed to take advantage of the spread of smoking bans by recruiting smokers to switch from cigarettes to smokeless tobacco products, and thus not to have to be bothered by the inability to obtain nicotine easily because of the spread of smoking bans. Now, instead of having to go outside to smoke, or instead of deciding that the hassle just isn't worth it and they will quit, smokers can simply switch over to smokeless tobacco (or add smokeless tobacco to their regimen while in smoke-free places) and continue obtaining nicotine with the utmost of convenience.

This marketing campaign continues in full swing, as the most recent issue of Popular Mechanics features a full-page Copenhagen ad ("Copenhagen pouches. Made for the great indoors"). This ad shows a man at a bar, and suggests that smokeless tobacco is a great alternative for smokers who cannot smoke because of bar smoking bans.

This new smokeless tobacco marketing campaign is particularly disturbing because it promises to undermine one of the main public health benefits of smoke-free workplaces and public places: decreased tobacco consumption. The campaign aims to take advantage of the spread of smoke-free policies to promote the use of smokeless tobacco among smokers who would otherwise either not smoke at all or have to take the trouble to go outside to light up.

In my opinion, it turns out that the "Living in Smoke-Free Laramie" seminar is nothing but a sham. It is little other than a marketing ploy by the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company to take advantage of the Laramie smoking ban to try to promote smokeless tobacco products in a region of the country where the potential market for smokeless products may be extremely high to begin with, but now with the smoking ban in place, may be even higher than ever before.

And the University of Wyoming, unless it changes its decision to accept this money to sponsor this sham seminar, is nothing other than a pawn in UST's marketing game.

How could an academic institution possibly sponsor a smokeless tobacco industry-sponsored seminar whose purpose is ostensibly to take advantage of a marketing opportunity to recruit new users of a carcinogenic and deadly product?

The involvement of the Ivinson Memorial Hospital is even more troubling, unless the rationale is that the hospital is trying to drum up some more business for its oral cancer ward, in which case this is an excellent business opportunity.

By bringing in nationally-recognized speakers, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco apparently is aiming to gain legitimacy for the discussion of smokeless tobacco products and to hide its promotion of these products under the guise of a "scientific" discussion of smoking, smokeless tobacco, and health issues.

But the forum is nothing of the sort. It is little other than a PR-op: a marketing and public relations opportunity.

Ironically, it seems to me that UST no longer has to do its own marketing. In the University of Wyoming, it appears to have a ready and willing partner to aid in its efforts to take advantage of the Laramie smoking ban to try to promote smokeless tobacco products.

And at the same time, another organization which is supposed to be on the "other side" of this issue - the American Legacy Foundation - has partnered with the very corporations that are delivering UST's new marketing campaign all over the country.

All of the ads mentioned above are carried by corporations that are American Legacy Foundation corporate partners. And Legacy has gone further and awarded the company that is carrying many of the advertisements, including two of the ads mentioned above, for its "progress in tobacco-free publications."

By virtue of its partnership with the producers of the above magazines, Legacy has become associated with the widespread promotion of smokeless tobacco use and with the promulgation of this new smokeless tobacco marketing campaign, which is clearly contrary to its overall mission.

With enemies like this, the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company doesn't appear to need friends. When it can rely on academic institutions and supposedly anti-smoking organizations to help enable and support its marketing efforts, it's a sad state of affairs for tobacco control.

UPDATE: Monday, February 27; 2:30 pm - The University of Wyoming and its Center for Rural Health Research and Education has decided to reject UST sponsorship of this event and to cancel the seminar. The updated story has just been posted on this blog, including my praise of the University of Wyoming and the Center for making this decision.

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