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Published: Thursday, 5/14/2009

Where there's no smoke ...

BIG Tobacco is at it again, this time with an insidious plan to hook a whole new generation of Americans on nicotine by making it seem like a harmless breath mint.

R.J. Reynolds, which brought you Joe Camel, is now test-marketing Camel Orbs, a smokeless tobacco product, in Ohio and elsewhere. Each tablet contains about 1 milligram of nicotine and dissolves in the mouth in a few minutes.

The product comes in metal boxes that resemble candy tins, lending the distinct impression that the manufacturers are practically counting on it to fall into the hands of children and teenagers. Inadvertently, of course.

Shelly Kiser of the American Lung Association of Ohio noted that such containers appear intended to deceive parents or teachers, who wouldn't know that kids were using the functional equivalent of tobacco - without the telltale smoke.

For their part, the tobacco companies insist that their smokeless products, and other newly marketed alternatives to smoking, are only sold to adults. But anti-smoking groups point out that the companies flavor the tobacco precisely to appeal to youngsters, who become addicted and often graduate to cigarettes.

The dissolvable tobacco mints "have a dual danger of luring kids into the habit and keeping smokers addicted," said Dan McGoldrick of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

Targeting young people to smoke - even if the first step doesn't involve actually breathing toxic fumes - is a public health threat that demands a remedy in Congress.

Last month, the House overwhelmingly passed legislation that would not only give the Food and Drug Administration power to regulate tobacco advertising, but also authority to order product changes to protect the public.

If the Senate passes the bill, as expected, President Obama has said he would sign it, allowing the FDA to aggressively curb the new risk of smokeless tobacco before it can gain a foothold among the young and get another generation addicted.

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