A Canadian company began offering a new cigarette in Ohio in recent weeks that aims to curb tobacco addiction by burning hemp leaves among other plant material.
Called Taat, the inhalable smoke is intended to mirror the taste and feel of traditional tobacco, but without the addictive nicotine or other harmful byproducts.
But local anti-smoking groups are questioning the product claims, its rollout during a viral pandemic and overall purpose,.
“I can’t even imagine why anyone would want to do this. You’re not getting the drug (nicotine) that you’re used to. And you’re burning a mystery substance and inhaling it into your lungs,” said Dr. Rob Crane, a family medicine physician at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center and founder of Tobacco 21, a national organization with the goal of raising the age one can purchase tobacco products to 21.
Sold already in Cleveland, Akron and other parts of northeastern Ohio, it will soon be available in Columbus, said Setti Coscarella, CEO of Vancouver-based Taat Lifestyle and Wellness.
Instead of tobacco, the cigarette uses hemp leaves, among other plant material, that includes 50 mg of cannabidiol, or CBD oil, a derivative of hemp, which Coscarella said has been shown to mitigate symptoms of nicotine withdrawal and addiction.
Crane and anti-smoking groups have strong reactions about selling a new cigarette during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic which is attacking people’s respiratory systems and has claimed more than 355,000 lives in the U.S.
“We have no idea whether CBD will survive the burning process, and then there’s the other stuff that you’re going to inhale,” Crane said.
The company said there are other plant-based additives and flavorings in its proprietary formula, which it declined to specify,
The company is currently testing the emissions, “to be able to say, ‘Here’s what comes out of our product. Here’s what comes out of traditional cigarettes. Which do you choose?,’” said Coscarella, former lead strategist at Phillip Morris who oversaw a “Reduced Risk Products” portfolio.
He said 70% of smokers already have tried vaping, many in order to quit tobacco. And by a 20-to-1 ratio they prefer conventional tobacco.
His quest: “Can I give them something to smoke that isn’t addictive?”
“So that the power to smoke, or to quit, is really in their hands,” Coscarella said. “For those who can’t quit, can I provide them with a product that is not chemically addictive?”
Critics, however, say that behavioral addiction, the daily ritual of occupying hand and mouth with tobacco, can be as powerful as nicotine.
“There are all sorts of cues to trigger people to smoke,” such as driving, a morning cup of coffee, even sex, said Dr. Tom Houston, medical director of the Lung Health Clinic at the Breathing Association on the Near East Side.
Taat’s own marketing appears to seize on reinforcing social aspects of the habit, noting that its product is “meticulously engineered to closely emulate the sensory components of smoking a tobacco cigarette.”
Sultry models in Taat advertising proclaim: “Anywhere Anytime” and “Feel the cool.”
Big Tobacco companies are introducing products with similar appeal.
IQOS is a electronic cigarette from Phillip Morris International that delivers nicotine by heating, instead of burning, tobacco, at a lower temperature (350 degrees compared with more than 600 degrees), and without other harmful byproducts. The company notes that it is “not risk free” and can be addictive.
Taat “is not subject to regulation by the FDA as a tobacco product if it does not contain any tobacco-derived materials,” said Micah Berman, associate professor of Public Health and Law at Ohio State University who has worked with OSU’s Center for the Advancement of Tobacco Science.
“If they’re making claims that the product helps people to quit nicotine use, then it would be subject to regulation by the FDA as a drug,” Berman said.
Houston said he is familiar with small studies that offered “mixed evidence” about CBD’s role in tobacco addiction.
“Theoretically, there might be some reduction in stress and anxiety in people who use CBD, but the evidence (related to smoking cessation) is weak,” he said.
“Nicotine is not the most harmful part of cigarettes — nicotine is a major reason that cigarettes are addictive,” said Theodore Wagener, director of the Center for Tobacco Research and co-leader of the Cancer Control Research Program at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“The harm from smoking is from combustion — the burning of the cigarette, which creates thousands of harmful chemicals that are known carcinogens and cardiovascular toxicants,” he said.
There currently are 55 million Americans who have quit smoking, Crane said. More than 40 million still smoke.
Smoking during a pandemic requires extra steps, he said. “You have to pull your mask down and put your fingers to your mouth several times a minute. It is the height of insanity.
“The main reason people quit is Vitamin M: motivation. In the absence of that, no one would quit.”
Taat’s “Beyond Tobacco” product is to be offered in original and menthol varieties. It costs $3.99 a pack, lower than tobacco, which is heavily taxed in many states.