R.J. Reynolds Pivots to New Cigarette Pitches as Flavor Ban Takes Effect

R.J. Reynolds has wasted no time since California’s ban on flavored tobacco went into effect in late December. “California, We’ve Got You Covered,” the company declared in bold letters on a flier mailed to its cigarette customers.

The law prohibits flavors, odors or “tastes” in tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes. But antismoking experts argue that R.J. Reynolds, the maker of Camel and Newport brands, is trying to circumvent the ban by luring smokers with a suite of what it says are new non-menthol versions offering “a taste that satisfies the senses” and “a new fresh twist.”

The campaign is viewed by critics as a provocation of California authorities who are supposed to enforce the ban, which includes a provision outlawing packaging or claims that suggest a product has a flavor. The Food and Drug Administration also is moving forward with a national plan to take menthol cigarettes off the market.

To public health authorities, the potential reduction in smoking rates from a menthol ban could extend the length and quality of millions of lives. To R.J. Reynolds and other tobacco companies, the loss of sales from menthol cigarettes could be financially damaging.

Luis Pinto, the vice president of communications at R.J. Reynolds, said in an email that the “products introduced in California meet and comply with all applicable regulatory requirements.” He added that the new cigarettes “are not subject to the recently enacted ban because they do not have a distinguishable taste or aroma other than tobacco.”

But while not all tobacco-control experts are certain that the new products violate the California law, they do agree that the Reynolds marketing campaign reflects decades-long efforts by tobacco companies to protest and flout government regulations.

Dr. Robert Jackler, a professor at Stanford Medicine who provided the ads to The New York Times, called the new marketing “outrageous.”

“The thing that surprises me is there’s no camouflage,” said Dr. Jackler, who received the mailers along with staff members of Stanford’s program on tobacco advertising. “They’re saying, ‘This is our menthol replacement. And by the way — wink, wink — it is not really menthol.’”

A mailer collected from Camel by Dr. Jackler targeted Californians.Credit…via Robert Jackler

The tobacco flavor ban in California initially took shape as a law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020. Reynolds and others gathered signatures to let voters decide through a referendum on the issue. In November, 63 percent of voters approved the ban.

“It’s racist, predatory marketing,” Ms. McGruder said. She added that public health officials were constantly having to react to the tobacco companies’ tactics, “as they try to stay alive — using addicted, lifelong customers.”

Drafters of the California law had the international experience in mind, by outlawing flavor accessories and any claims that promote a flavored product. To Dr. Pamela Ling, the director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California San Francisco, the message is clear.

“If you squint at the ads, you’re going to see this as a flavorful product, whether it says it or not,” Dr. Ling said. “The colors, the packaging, the associations that your brain makes with the look and feel — that overrides the text that says this is not menthol.”

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