Cherry Cigarettes: A Marketing Battle!

When your six year old daughter throws a temper tantrum because you refuse to buy her a new doll, how do you encourage her to calm herself? By drawing with her crayons, perhaps? Or by listening to her favorite songs?

What if she lights up a cherry flavored tobacco product instead?

Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned all fruit and herbal flavored cigarettes from the shelves of American retailers, fearing that tobacco companies would employ them to entice youngsters into lifetimes of addiction. But last week, as an importer of cherry, vanilla, and clove flavored cigars struck back in federal court, the fate of the FDA’s initiative grew murky.

In Search Of Growth

It isn’t difficult to understand why American tobacco companies are so eager to diversify into new niches. After all, their domestic customer markets are shrinking in the face of tax hikes and other regulatory restrictions. And though international markets have provided valuable opportunities for growth, global competitors have battled ferociously for the loyalty of their native consumers.

So tobacco companies have argued that flavoring and other innovations are necessary to attract mainstream adults to their products; they protest that they have no designs whatsoever on children. In fact, they correctly note that the sale of any tobacco products to children is a crime, and that many tobacco company funded campaigns are specifically focused on deterring underaged individuals from smoking.

Yet many skeptics believe that flavored cigarettes represent a clever attempt by tobacco companies to introduce their products to minors. Given the long history of marketing practices by various producers of unhealthy pleasures, it is easy to understand why they harbor such suspicions.

Marketing To Children

Manufacturers of products with dubious health effects have long grappled with the implications of marketing their products to minors. Distributors of wine coolers, for instance, have always known that sweet flavors like exotic berry and pomegranate raspberry may be attractive to children who customarily quaff fruit juices. Similarly, RJ Reynolds was indeed aware that its animated Joe Camel cigarette mascot may have appealed to youngsters; it was eventually compelled to cancel its entire campaign because of such concerns. And fast food titan McDonald’s has long promoted an entire staple of McDonaldland characters, from its namesake Ronald McDonald to his pals Mayor McCheese and the Hamburglar, who unabashedly target the youngest of consumers.

Many of these vendors, to be fair, claim that their products and marketing activities can actually be beneficial to children. McDonald’s, for instance, asserts truthfully that it has recently invested heavily in the roll-out of salads and other healthy foods for children. And General Mills, the maker of such breakfast cereals as Franken Berry, Boo Berry and Count Chocula, does tout the legitimate health benefits of launching one’s day with a full morning meal.

Cat And Mouse

But what is a manufacturer to do if its products are banned outright, as is the case with flavored cigarettes? In the tobacco industry, apparently, the next strategic step in the game of cat and mouse between regulator and manufacturer is to tweak the product slightly so that it falls outside of the definition of the regulated item.

This strategy is not a new one; other industries have employed it successfully for many years.  Pharmaceutical manufacturers, for instance, have long adapted to patent expirations by tweaking their drug formulations and then relaunching them under newly patented names … goodbye Claritin, hello Clarinex! And who can forget the World Wrestling Federation (WWF)’s rebranding as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) so that its obviously scripted and fixed matches would avoid charges of copyright infringement and accusations of sports fraud?

Likewise, last week, flavored cigar importer Kretek International went to federal court to request a declaratory judgment that its products are not affected by the new cigarette ban. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration immediately responded by warning cigarette companies to refrain from producing small and slender flavored cigars as cigarette substitutes.

Health or Money?

For those of us who believe that the battle against smoking is all about the altruistic promotion of healthy lifestyles, support for further restrictions on tobacco products and marketing activities might come from an unlikely source: the insurance industry! After all, health insurers are the organizations that finance medical treatments for lung cancer, emphysema, and other tobacco induced ailments; they have historically financed and promoted numerous smoking cessation programs.

In fact, there is a reason why tobacco usage remains, along with age and gender, one of the very few variables that can be cited to justify the addition of surcharges to the cost of purchasing insurance policies in the latest Democratic health care reform proposal. Ultimately, and perhaps ironically, it may be the overwhelming costs of treating tobacco related diseases – and not the obvious benefits to public health and welfare itself – that coalesce public support behind further restrictions on tobacco companies.