updated 6/10/2009 9:31:48 PM ET 2009-06-11T01:31:48

They're the newest smoke-free tobacco products — dissolvable pellets or strips that don't require users to chew or even spit. Sold in shiny plastic cases, the products melt in your mouth like breath mints.

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R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company is test-marketing dissolvable products in three cities and says they are designed for adults.

Some lawmakers disagree. They call the products tobacco candy and say they are designed with one thing in mind: to get kids hooked on nicotine. They want to give the government power to restrict sales.

"Tobacco candies are clearly designed to appeal to children through both packaging and taste," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. "This is not a safe product. This is not safe tobacco. It is a product that, like cigarettes, causes cancer and kills."

Merkley and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, have co-sponsored a provision in the Senate tobacco bill requiring the government to study health effects of dissolvable tobacco. The Food and Drug Administration would be given authority to restrict how the products are marketed and sold.

The Senate is expected to vote this week on legislation giving the FDA sweeping controls over cigarettes and other tobacco products. The bill would give the agency power to regulate the content of tobacco products, order the removal of hazardous ingredients, restrict the marketing and distribution of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, clamp down on sales to young people and require stronger warning labels.

"For years, tobacco companies have deceived consumers and marketed products to children — continually trying to replace the 400,000 customers they lose each year to tobacco-related deaths and illnesses," Brown said. "There is no doubt that smokeless tobacco products are aimed squarely at children. We have a responsibility to protect children from suggestive marketing and dangerous products."

A spokesman for North Carolina-based R.J. Reynolds accused Merkley and other lawmakers of intentionally distorting the nature of the dissolvable products, which are being test-marketed in Portland, Ore., Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis.

"It's not tobacco candy. That terminology is their terminology," said David Howard, a Reynolds spokesman. "These are tobacco products. They are made from finely milled tobacco. All the packaging says dissolvable tobacco, they are sold side-by-side with other tobacco products and their sale is age-restricted."

Product packaged to look like mints, critic says
But Merkley and other critics said the packaging makes some of the products look like cell phones, while others look like breath mints. Words like "mellow" and "fresh" are prominently displayed.

Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy group that has pushed for FDA regulation of tobacco, says dissolvables are likely to appeal to children because they are flavored and packaged like candy and are easy to conceal, even in a classroom. They also carry the Camel brand, popular with many teens.

"The last thing kids need is another product to start them on the road to nicotine addiction," Myers said.

Howard, the Reynolds spokesman, said smoke-free products eliminate the problem of second-hand smoke — and dissolvable products go one step further.

"There's no spitting and there is no litter. They literally dissolve" in a user's mouth, he said. "We believe this is a positive. And we'll see what adult consumers think."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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