Dissolvable tobacco pills: Anti-smoking aid or gateway drug?

By Carrie Johnson Weimar • Published: April 26th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

The tiny pellets look like mints or candies. But these little melt-in-your-mouth pills deliver more than just a burst of flavor if pressed between the gums and lips: they also pack a hit of nicotine. Tobacco companies are touting these dissolvable pills as an effective aid for quitting smoking or as a healthier alternative to cigarettes that won’t create any mess or secondhand smoke. But health advocates say these little pills have the potential to hook kids on tobacco at an early age. The Food and Drug Administration is investigating the matter to see what, if any, regulation is needed.

The pills are made from small, tightly compressed pieces of finely ground tobacco powder, as well as binders and flavorings. Tobacco company officials argue that the pellets have far fewer cancer-causing chemicals than cigarettes or smokeless tobacco and could be used to help people kick their nicotine habit.

But anti-smoking activists say the flavors and the packaging will appeal to children. They fear kids will try the pills, get hooked on the nicotine and then graduate to smoking or smokeless tobacco.

Dissolvable nicotine tablets debuted back in 2001. But in the past year, the number of products on sale or in test marketing jumped considerably, with major companies such as Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds stepping into the field.

Public health officials are especially worried about the effect these pills might have on teeth and gums after holding the product in the mouth for between 10 and 20 minutes. They are also concerned that swallowing the chemicals could affect the stomach.

For now, little is known about the health risks associated with tobacco pills. But at a time when the use of smokeless tobacco is on the rise in the United States, especially among youth and teens, it’s a safe bet the little pellets will be getting a closer look from doctors and government regulators alike.