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Bill seeks to close tobacco loopholes

Adam Kintopf, communications manager, and Molly Moilanen, intervention program manager, both for ClearWay Minnesota, display boxes of "little cigars" in flavors such as peach and grape that the anti-smoking group would like classified as cigarettes, and fall under state tax laws, boosting prices and attractiveness to youth. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Barred from advertising cigarettes on television, tobacco companies still spend $12.8 billion a year marketing a new generation of tobacco products.

Some $190 million of that is spent in Minnesota, Adam Kintopf, communications manager for ClearWay Minnesota, said Tuesday.

Tobacco companies are still doing traditional marketing, such as targeting minorities and women and sending free boxes of tobacco products to servicemen and women in the Middle East, he said.

"But we also found that they're doing some really remarkable new things that we have not seen before," Kintopf said. "They include some new products as far removed as you can imagine from traditional cigarettes."

He pulled a number of new products out of a small bag to show a reporter, including Snus, small pouches of tobacco placed between gum and lip.

"Snus is sold right now in Minnesota and around the country," said Molly Moilanen, ClearWay intervention program manager. "It's a new tobacco product that is a smokeless product and spitless."

It's being marketed to traditional chewers and also to young people, she said, "so when you're at the club, when you're in class, places where you can't smoke you can use this. Their slogan is 'Boldly go anywhere.'"

Kintopf showed other products being tested in some states but have not yet reached Minnesota. They include tobacco sticks shaped like a toothpick, orbs that look like small breath mints and strips that look like breath-freshening strips. All contain finely milled tobacco that dissolves when placed in the mouth.

"They have a lot of nicotine," Moilanen said. "Right now they're being tested in Portland, Ore., Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio."

New products for the 21st century by the tobacco industry is highlighted in a report, "Unfiltered: A Revealing Look at Today's Tobacco Industry," issued earlier this year by ClearWay Minnesota, an independent non-profit funded by tobacco settlement funds and which operates smoking cessation programs.

"What we're doing right now here in Minnesota in anticipation of this, is we've put together some legislation that would get our tobacco laws ready if and when these come to Minnesota," Moilanen said.

Products would be regulated under youth access laws so teens under age 18 couldn't purchase the product, she said. Also, the new products would be put within state legal definitions of tobacco products.

"Right now, our definitions don't even cover these dissolvable products," she said. "We want to make sure that they are taxed properly."

Other new products include the e-cigarette which are electronic nicotine delivery systems that simulate smoking and produce steam, not smoke. "The Freedom to Breathe Act bans smoking indoors, and that is not covered. We're trying make sure this year that youth can't purchase these."

At Christmas, e-cigarettes were being sold in kiosks in malls in the metro area, she said. "They were prolific in the malls in the Twin Cities area."

"Almost literally every day there is a new press release that appears from anew e-cigarette retailer saying this is the way either to quit smoking or this is the way to smoke when you can't smoke," Kintopf said.

The Tobacco Modernization and Compliance of 2010 would ensure that new tobacco products are covered by existing regulation, such as not allowing them to be sold on the counter next to candy and gum.

It would also prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to youth, and fund a Minnesota Department of Revenue feasibility study on how best to collect taxes and fees on all tobacco products which would increase collections and reduce evasion.

It would also cover another product, "little cigars," as what they really are -- cigarettes, subjecting them to existing regulations applicable to cigarettes such as tax stamps.

"Little cigars," such as Swisher Sweets and Camel, come in flavors such as grape, chocolate and peach. They look, feel and smoke like cigarettes but have tobacco in the rolling paper which allows them to be called cigars, Moilanen said, thus avoiding cigarette tax and other regulation.

The bill is carried in the Senate by Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and in the House by Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Buffalo.

"It is a piece of legislation that will get our definitions and our laws modernized and in step with these new products and with the new tactics," Moilanen said.