So now we have tobacco candy: Camel Orbs, a compressed tobacco tablet that tastes and looks like a breath mint. Orbs delivers nicotine. So does nicotine gum. But unlike nicotine gums, Orbs contains tobacco. More important, Orbs is meant to take the place of a cigarette, not to help you quit.
Orbs have been test marketed in select states for a few months, but now they have caught the attention of the FDA. In a Feb. 1 letter to R.J. Reynolds, the director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products (CTP) expressed concern “that children and adolescents may find dissolvable tobacco products particularly appealing, given the brightly colored packaging, candy-like appearance and easily concealable size of many of these products.” (reported here)
The FDA’s worry has two parts: one, that tobacco packaged as candy encourages young people to take up smoking. And two, that the candy-like appearance of products like Orbs might appeal to children and endanger them if they think it is actually candy. It’s that second idea that has pitched Orbs into the newspapers this past week. Pediatrics, a medical journal, published a study on April 19, 2010 detailing the risks of nicotine poisoning to children who accidentally eat Orbs and similar candy-like tobacco products. Since then, the news media has been abuzz with news and debate about this latest salvo in the tobacco wars. (msnbc.com coverage here; New York Times article here; Q&A from The Week here).
Despite everything we know about the dangers of tobacco, smoking is legal, and other tobacco products are legal, but only if you’re over 18. We’ve decided as a society that nicotine use and addiction is tolerable for adults, but not for children. Like alcohol, nicotine is a recreational drug that our society tolerates within certain limits. But while adults are deemed competent to choose drug use, children generally are not. So the concern that children will confuse candy, which they can have, with nicotine, which they cannot have, is understandable.
The worries about Orbs, though, seem uniquely contradictory. On the one hand, there is the worry that children will accidentally ingest a dangerous drug disguised as candy. On the other hand, there is the worry that children will conceal their drug abuse by hiding these little candy-like packages and discretely popping nicotine pills under the guise of enjoying a breath freshener.
So are children innocent victims, or pathological drug-abusers? Somehow, when it comes to candy, they are both.
The combination of candy and children has always carried with it an intertwined idea of innocence and corruption. Candy and children seem to go together naturally: children find candy irresistible, and candy, especially simple sugar candy, is for the kids. But if children can’t resist candy, there is something disturbing about that desire. Candy is a lure, a trap, that draws children in. And hidden behind candy’s sweet surface is something potentially harmful, something perhaps deadly. In the 1890s, it was “adulterants” like glue and clay that would harm candy eating children. In the 1970s, it was razor blades hiding in the Halloween candy. In every decade, there have been stories of children “poisoned” by something in the candy they eat.
Candy, it seems, is always concealing something dangerous, let’s call it “factor X.” Every era has its own “factor X,” but the historical continuity of candy danger tells us that alarms about candy poisonings, whether due to artificial colors or nicotine, are not entirely connected to the actual, measured danger. The image of poison candy is a powerful one: candy is innocence, and the hidden poison, whatever it is, is the seed of corruption.
The latest “factor X” is tobacco, or nicotine. As the tobacco industry defenders have insisted, the actual danger posed by Orbs in the household is pretty minor compared with all the other hazards to the unsupervised child, cleansers, medicines, and the like. The packaging for Orbs and related products is claimed to be child-proof, and the product is sold with warnings, just like aspirin or cold medicine. The latest report suggests something like 600 children a year experience “mild nicotine poisoning.” Hypothetically, if a very young child were to eat a lot of these candies, it could be lethal. But we could say that about a lot of ordinary substances, starting with aspirin. This too is part of the historical pattern: in every era, the intensity of coverage of alleged candy poisoning is far in excess of the actual incidence of real harm.
The other charge critics make is that R.J. Reynolds is involved in a deliberate attempt to appeal to children and hook them on tobacco at a young age. The implication seems to be, if it’ s candy, it must be for children. Although the form of this tobacco candy is more like Tic Tacs, which kids don’t particularly go for, and not like, say, Sour Warhead Gummis.
R.J. Reynolds knows very well that tobacco is only allowed for adults. If they make a tobacco candy, it is not because they expect to profit from illegal or accidental sales to children. They expect to profit from legal and successful marketing and sales to adults. It is adults who are seen as wanting a “candy” drug, a drug made to seem innocuous because it takes the form of a candy. In today’s youth obsessed culture, the marketing of this product as hip and cool and fun seems aimed at 20 and 30-somethings (it reminds me of the new Wonka campaign). When we have generations of “kiddults” still acting and living like teens, I’m not sure that such marketing indicates a sinister plot to capture kids, as critics have charged, so much as it points out how confused we have become about the differences between adults and children.
I suspect that a lot of the clamor against the idea of tobacco candy has quite a lot to do with our deep Puritan moralism when it comes to drugs and pleasure. If people are going to be addicted to tobacco, they should suffer for it. The idea that there is a benign, pleasant, socially acceptable way to get your tobacco fix seems just wrong.
Transforming a cigarette into a breath mint seems a brilliant solution for a tobacco industry threatened by changing perceptions of their key product. Cigarette smoking has become almost intolerable in many places in our society, and cigarette smokers the new pariahs. Smoking causes premature aging, wrinkles, death. But candy? Candy is about fun, and innocence, and youth. If you could trade in the reviled cigarette for an innocent candy, wouldn’t you?
These days, a lot of smokers would rather not be “smokers.” Everybody, smokers especially, knows how cigarettes damage your body and your health, as well as, in many cases, your career and your social life. Tobacco candy seems the ideal solution: pleasant tasting, no body is bothered, no embarrassing scene of sucking on a “cancer stick” outside the office building. And as candy, that most innocuous of substances, alternatives like Orbs seem perfectly safe. It’s easy to forget that it’s still tobacco, and still carries significant risks of gum cancer, mouth cancer, and heart disease.
Tobacco candy is just the latest entry in the race to turn everything into candy. When it’s calcium candy or fiber candy or xylitol candy, everybody seems pretty happy. But when it’s tobacco candy, we can begin to discern the problems of making candy something other than candy. Tobacco candy is potentially harmful in a way that calcium candy probably is not, to be sure. But tobacco candy is really just the dark cousin of those more benign drug-candies. Drugs and poisons get mixed in a confusing stew with pleasures and the appearance of innocence.
So far, the test marketing of Orbs hasn’t been very successful. Anecdotal reports from test markets suggest slow sales, and there are no current plans for a national roll-out. It may just be the case that most tobacco users prefer to keep tobacco a little less pleasant, a little less candy like. It may not be as good as quitting, but at least it’ s honest.