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August, 2008

Pushing the Snus Button in the US

US manufacturer Altria recently announced that it will start devoting more time and capital into the smokeless market. Part of the plan includes pushing their new Marlboro Snus product into Indianapolis as a test market, according to Chief Executive Michael Symanczyk. This all follows a less-than-stellar debut of the company’s late Taboka endeavor into snus. Snus, or spitless fermented tobacco pouches, has long been popular in several northern European markets (and, for some reason, South Africa), but has, so far, struggled to even call itself a niche market in the States. Sales of cans are so far measured in dozens, in stark contrast to the millions of units the multinationals are used to (with, in some cases, marketing schemes being targeted in areas near Swedish embassies and missions). Will this US push into snus pay off? Lots of people seem to think the US market and snus are a natural match - Altria, RJ Reynolds (who recently began a push of Camel Snus into the major markets of Los Angels, Chicago, and New York City), General, and a bevy of small, independent producers count themselves among the true believers.

There are many hurdles for this Nordic import. First, the Scandinavian-rooted “snus” doesn’t quite flow off the American tongue (does it rhyme with fuss? with booze?). And even its proper pronunciation (rhymes with loose) has connotation problem of its own (a little too close to snooze, a synonym for sleeping - not exactly a name that will fly off the shelves). But no one seems too turned off by these lingual barriers and proudly include the “s-word” in branding and marketing campaigns: Marlboro Snus, Camel Snus, and General’s Swedish Snus.

Also, the product is just different than most are used to. While one particular tobacco demographic for the product - chewers and spitters - might be an ideal demographic to approach, it will take some real innovative marketing to have people try this new product in a country where the very law is allergic to tobacco marketing. And while there is undisputed science to back the argument that snus is safer than any combustible tobacco product, the powers-that-be still will not allow manufacturers to market snus this way. This is despite the fact that snus have been suggested - by respected public health advocates no less - as an avenue for people to stop smoking cigarettes. Sources say the fight (read: lobbying effort) is on to have this cigarette-based rule changed. And my prediction is that it will, at some point. While we will probably never see a US television commercial for the newest flavor of Marlboro Snus, we very well may see some text-heavy displays at pharmacies and local shops advertising the cessation abilities of snus. And that is the reality these US manufacturers are banking on.

- Evan D. Dashevsky

Tobacco International - August, 2008

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