Attack of the Orbs


"Nicotine is a highly addictive drug," says Harvard public health professor Gregory Connolly, "and to make it look like a piece of candy is recklessly playing with the health of children." Connolly is referring to products like Camel Orbs, flavored pellets made from compressed tobacco powder. With an eye toward proliferating smoking bans, R.J. Reynolds promotes Orbs as a form of tobacco than can be enjoyed "Anywhere. Anytime. Anyplace." But Connolly sees them as child enslavers and baby killers, arguing that Reynolds is trying to hook older kids on nicotine to shore up its customer base and that little kids will mistake Orbs for candy, eat them, and die.

The evidence on that first count is rather impressionistic. "The candy-like appearance, added flavors, and easily concealable size of many of these products may be particularly appealing to children and adolescents," says an editorial in the latest issue of the journal Pediatrics. "They're tobacco candy," says Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). "Everything about them is designed for kids." The New York Times tries to bolster the case that Orbs are a menace to the nation's youth:

Emily A. Kile, 18, a high school senior involved in antismoking efforts in Greenfield, Ind., said, "Kids can sit in class, you know, and use it and nobody would know."

Mike Moran, the police chief of Talent, Ore., 280 miles south of Portland, said he found a group of teenagers last spring sharing Camel Orbs taken from one of their older brothers.

Citing Connolly, the Times also warns that "the nicotine in 10 to 17 orbs could kill an infant." Connolly tries to back up his concern about accidental poisoning with a Pediatrics study that analyzes reports to poison control centers from 2006 to 2008. Connolly and his co-authors find that "smokeless tobacco products were the second most common tobacco products ingested by children." Well, that's one way to put it. Here's another way: All smokeless tobacco products combined accounted for 1,768 cases, less than 13 percent of the tobacco ingestions. And how many of these cases involved Orb-like products, which have been on the market since 2001 (when Star Scientific introduced Arriva)? Connolly et al. do not say, but so far they have managed to identify just one (nonfatal) case involving the Camel product, which was introduced last year.

"The R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company claims that Orbs packaging is child-resistant," the researchers write, "but adults might take multiple pellets out of the container for convenience and unknowingly leave them where infants or children might find and ingest them." Well, yes, they might, and they might do the same sort of thing with vitamins, over-the-counter or prescription drugs, matches, or any number of other potentially hazardous products that children should not eat or play with. That possibility is not usually viewed as grounds for banning these products.

Why do I bring up prohibition? Because the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which gave the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products, included an amendment introduced by Sen. Merkley that instructs the agency to study dissolvable tobacco pellets and decide within two years whether they should remain on the market. Connolly, who has a long history of exaggerating the hazards posed by smokeless tobacco and resisting its promotion as a safer alternative to cigarettes, is a member of the advisory committee that will help the FDA decide. Laurence R. Deyton, co-author of the Pediatrics editorial worrying that children will be attracted to Orbs and their competitors, is the director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products.