Harm reduction needs to be easy: the case of RJR’s new switching campaign

As previously mentioned, we, like many others were quite pleased to see the R.J.Reynolds Tobacco Company Christmas season campaign suggesting that smokers switch to smokeless tobacco (report here). Since many people still think the turn of the year is a time for a turn of the leaf, the time is most appropriate to put forth a suggestion that just might make more of an impact than at other times of the year.

The ads make no health claims. The idea is simply to try the switch and see if you like it. The actual text for one of the ads reads:

If you’ve decided to quit tobacco use, we support you. But if you’re looking for smoke-free, spit-free, drama-free tobacco pleasure, Camel Snus is your answer. Logon to the Pleasure Switch Challenge and see how simple switching can be. Camel Snus _ it might just change the way you enjoy tobacco.

And despite this innocuous text, an FDA spokesman is reported to have said that they were “reviewing the claims”. Nice work if you can get it is all I can say. I just reviewed the claims (none) and it took about as long as it took to read the passage. I suspect the FDA charge will require a few professionals and a board meeting and a subsequent request for recompense from RJR.

Readers of this blog know that we wholeheartedly promote switching from smoking to smokeless forms of nicotine use and thus we experience a certain degree of frustration seeing that a company trying to do the right thing, that is the thing that advances public health, has to avoid mentioning any hint of this product being 99% safer than smoking. (Because even though it is true, it could run them afoul of some fairly strong regulations).

And not to mention (and what an odd phrase that is since it signals its exact opposite) that the only health references on these ads are huge banners implying severe danger. The ads mention a website where you can learn more (https://snus.tobaccopleasure.com/modules/security/Login.aspx) and there following content devoid of any positive health claims runs a huge banner saying Warning : This product can cause mouth cancer.

If I didn’t know any better, and time was I didn’t, that would have stopped me dead in my tracks. And if that is not enough there is a rather extensive sign in system (to make sure I am not a child I suppose), the which are known to severely reduce consumer participation. (A few of us have tried to get through this hurdle with little luck so we have not been able to evaluate what lies on the other side, whether truth does survive in the Matrix or not.)

This is a pretty important point. Though we do not know what lies in the promised land, there is some implication of valuable information (and information that is qualitatively different from what we already have been given). But getting there is not unlike the security requirements to board a plane (papers and pat down) except that when you are flying you know your destination and already have decided that the difficulties of negotiating security are worth the annoyance.

Given these requirements and the uncertainty of a payoff we would bet that almost no one has crossed over.

Several of us (and we are almost certainly more motivated than the average consumer or would be switcher) answered personal information questions for minutes, including asking for U.S. social security numbers (i.e., something Americans are constantly told not to share with anyone other than employers and banks for fear of identity theft; in Canada the government actually forbids the use of our version of that number for any non-tax purposes). But after going through all of that, it asked us to make a phone call and/or fax our identity papers to them. Riiiight. It is not like they are promising a coupon for anyone who gets in, or even a transaction — this is just to be able to read information. Those phone lines must be flooded with the, let’s guess, 1/1000th of interested consumers who are actually willing to go to all that trouble.

(Carl plans to post more on these ad later, so we will let you know what excitement lies beyond the barrier if one of us ever gets through.)

It would be easy to blame RJR for being too soft when they should be actively pushing the safer alternative but the fact is they have little choice. For simply revealing the same benefits known to anyone doing the research, they could be subject to substantial fines.

Kind of like trying to sell driving with seat belts not because it is safer but because it looks cooler or feels nice to have something around you while you drive.

The usual suspects have been quite vocal in criticizing the campaign, painting it as a competition for would be quitters. While it is true that some quitters might appreciate learning about this alternative, the tone of the ad clearly emphasizes those who have considered quitting but are not doing so. Moreover, since the health benefits of switching are effectively the same as those from quitting, the would-be-quitters lose little (and more than make up for it by getting to continue using a product they like) and their health costs (if there are any) are overwhelmed by the benefits seen by switchers who would not have quit.

That “more than make up for it” reflects the fact that if they freely chose switching when quitting was still an option, it must be because it makes their lives better, a point that Carl has analyzed at length. It brings to mind the sportsman’s assertion that “winners never quit”. I guess the paraphrase would be that those who choose not to quit must be winners. In any case, like winners, most smokers who want to quit do not do so either, at least not for a long while, though perhaps they would switch with these alternatives available.

– Paul L. Bergen

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One thought on “Harm reduction needs to be easy: the case of RJR’s new switching campaign

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Harm reduction needs to be easy: the case of RJR’s new switching campaign « Tobacco Harm Reduction: News & Opinions -- Topsy.com

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