Sailing into uncharted waters, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. said Wednesday that it will begin making explicit health claims in advertisements for Eclipse cigarettes, stating that the low-smoke brand may reduce the risk of three major smoking-related diseases--cancer, bronchitis and emphysema--while creating less secondhand smoke.
The announcement by RJR Chairman Andrew J. Schindler at the company's annual meeting drew an angry blast from anti-smoking groups, which said the claims could prompt more people to smoke and should not be trusted without independent verification.
Eclipse, a newfangled product with a carbon tip that primarily heats, rather than burns, tobacco to achieve a large reduction in tar, has sold poorly in limited market trials, with little indication of it ever gaining wide acceptance from smokers.
But apart from commercial potential, analysts and critics said the bold announcement could have a big public relations upside for RJR, which, along with the rest of the industry, is under intense pressure to convince juries and lawmakers that it is part of the solution to the problem of smoking-related disease.
Health officials and anti-smoking groups have long maintained that tobacco ads are steeped in implied health claims, through imagery linking cigarette brands with wholesome activities and attractive and fit-looking models. For decades, however, explicit health claims have been strictly taboo, as the companies sought to avoid legal liability and government truth-in-advertising complaints.
In remarks to stockholders in Winston-Salem, N.C., Schindler said RJR, the second-largest U.S. tobacco firm, decided to take the step after extensive research--including chemical analysis of Eclipse smoke, experiments with lab animals and tests on smokers--"verified that making a specific reduced-risk claim is the appropriate and responsible action to take."
The announcement "couldn't have come soon enough from a litigation point of view," said Martin Feldman, a tobacco analyst with Salomon Smith Barney.
He added that "a cynic might say that this launch has been timed to have taken place before the . . . punitive-damage phase" of the landmark Engle class-action trial in Florida, which resumes next month.
Eclipse burns only about 3% as much tobacco as a standard cigarette, delivering nicotine and taste by passing heated air through tobacco and flavorants. A predecessor, known as Premier, flopped badly in test markets in the late 1980s.
In limited testing since 1996 in Chattanooga, Tenn.; Lincoln, Neb.; and Atlanta, Eclipse has drawn a mostly tepid response.
The new campaign will be initially confined to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where smokers will receive information by direct mail and national and regional magazines will carry double-page ads for Eclipse. Smokers there and elsewhere will be able to order Eclipse through a special Internet Web site or a toll-free number.
"The Best Choice for Smokers Who Worry About Their Health Is to Quit," states one of the ads, calling Eclipse "The Next Best Choice."
Based on "extensive scientific studies . . . Eclipse may present less risk of cancer," the ad says. "Eclipse produces less inflammation in the respiratory system, which suggests a lower risk of chronic bronchitis, and possibly even emphysema."
RJR acknowledges in the ad that it is making no claims about a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, which is linked to the deaths of an estimated 180,000 smokers a year and is considered the greatest cause of mortality from smoking.
Notwithstanding such disclaimers, RJR has "such a long record of distortion" that "until somebody with no . . . connection to Reynolds goes out and studies this independently, I just don't believe anything they say," said Stanton Glantz, a professor at UC San Francisco's medical school and a leading anti-smoking activist.
Other tobacco foes lamented anew last month's Supreme Court ruling that the Food and Drug Administration lacks authority to regulate cigarettes--or investigate the benefits claimed for new tobacco products.
Nonetheless, the Eclipse campaign is likely to attract scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces the federal law against unfair or deceptive marketing practices.
The agency has a long history of investigating cigarette marketers, including RJR.
Last year, for example, it negotiated a consent agreement in which RJR pledged to disclose in Winston cigarette ads that their "No Additives" claim did not mean the brand was safe.
Lee Peeler, associate director for advertising practices at the FTC, declined to comment on Eclipse, saying only that marketers of products that make health claims must be able to substantiate them with "competent, reliable, scientific evidence."
Responding to political and legal pressure, cigarette makers have stepped up work on a new generation of cigarettes and cigarette-like devices that are designed to deliver a standard nicotine kick but with lower health risks. Officials with Philip Morris, the leading U.S. cigarette maker, have called for federal regulations to determine how tobacco firms can properly promote products that may be safer though not safe.