'Sucking tobacco' illegally imported under ministries' noses

Exclusive: "Kicks," edible tobacco product sold throughout country without Health Ministry approval.

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August 15, 2007 00:25
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A fruit-flavored tobacco product called "Kicks," meant to be sucked for up to 30 minutes for its nicotine effect, is being imported from Sweden and sold illegally in chain stores and kiosks around the country, despite the lack of required authorizations from the Health and Trade ministries, The Jerusalem Post has learned. The Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry cannot authorize the import of a food product unless the Health Ministry certifies that it is safe for consumption, and the sale of a food product in Israel without Health Ministry approval is a criminal offense. Just last week, the American Association for Cancer Research reported that smokeless tobacco exposes users to some of the same potent carcinogens as cigarettes. In the August issue of the association's Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, researchers at the University of Minnesota's Cancer Center report that smokeless tobacco exposes users to higher amounts of tobacco-specific, cancer-causing nitrosamines than cigarettes. Israel Cancer Association chairman Prof. Eliezer Robinson and director-general Miri Ziv Boaz sent letters with similar messages to Health Minister Ya'acov Ben-Yizri and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai on July 3, telling them that Kicks was being imported, the Post has learned. They wrote that two decades ago, when former prime minister Ariel Sharon headed the Industry and Trade Ministry, he "adopted the association's request" to bar the import of smokeless tobacco. Robinson and Ziv said that to their "surprise," this regulation "does not exist today, or it was removed [from the regulation books] a few months ago, and that today one can buy - in chain stores and kiosks - tobacco for sucking." The Cancer Association heads called on the ministers to "use the powers given to you by law and prohibit the import of sucking tobacco into Israel until it is stated categorically in the law that the product is safe for use and does not endanger health. It is important to note that today, sucking tobacco is prohibited for import and sale in all the European Union countries and permitted only in Sweden and [other] Scandinavian countries." Ro'i Lachmanovich, Yishai's personal communications adviser, said the minister "definitely did not receive" the association's letter. Health Ministry spokeswoman Einav Shimron-Greenbaum said the ministry was "unfamiliar with the problem" and would investigate the matter. She recommended that the Post contact the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor. Health Ministry associate director-general Boaz Lev, who has just returned from 10 days abroad, said he didn't know if Ben-Yizri had received the letter. Lev said he would begin to investigate the matter on Wednesday, adding that he was "not happy about the sale of such a product." Lev confirmed it was a "food product" that could not be imported or sold without Health Ministry approval. "Maybe someone made a mistake," he said. The State Comptroller's Report of 1989/1990 also stated that the import of smokeless tobacco products was prohibited. This rule has been enforced until recently. Now, Kicks is imported by the Snus company. A small tin of 20 tea bag-shaped packets of tobacco costs NIS 35; they are supposed to be "held between the gums and the upper lip for several minutes to half an hour, according to personal taste." Rony Cinterra of the Cinterra Group, the public relations company that is promoting the new product, said Kicks "is going to be the hit of the summer among smokers and certainly among parents of children. It is a product consisting of tiny bags of natural tobacco in a variety of flavors such as wildberry and lime. I am sure that this product will reduce the smoke and smells of cigarettes in our environment and also help smokers get nicotine in a more healthy way." With the introduction of stricter antismoking laws in Sweden, the sale of smokeless tobacco had increased by "dozens of percentage points" and "people can continue to use it in public places," he said. Amos Hausner, a prominent Jerusalem lawyer and head of the Israel National Council for the Prevention of Smoking, told the Post that the import and sale of Kicks was a "criminal act. It is a food product that cannot be brought in and sold without Health Ministry authorization, and this has not been given. Nicorette chewing gum, which is a nicotine-delivery system, could not be sold without its getting Health Ministry approval. You can't sell a food product that endangers adults and children - except for cigarettes, which unfortunately are an exception, because even though they kill, they have been sold here long before the laws came into effect, and their sale has not been banned. But tobacco for sucking, chewing and sniffing is a food product, and its import and sale are prohibited." Elana Mayshar, the Health Ministry legal adviser who deals with tobacco issues, was told about the problem by the Cancer Association weeks ago. She said she "checked with the Ministry of Industry and Trade, and nobody could find a law that prohibits the import and sale of smokeless tobacco. I couldn't find documentation that it was banned." When the Post suggested that she contact the State Comptroller's Office for information on the basis of its 40th annual report, she said it was "a good idea." Mayshar added that there was "controversy around the world about smokeless tobacco. Some think it should be banned, but others say it is better for current smokers to switch from cigarettes to smokeless tobacco." But she conceded that smokeless tobacco could hook children and adults who did not currently light up. She said products containing tobacco could not be sold to minors, but "we know that enforcement of this law in kiosks and other stores is very difficult to carry out." Mayshar said the subject of smokeless tobacco "has not come up in the ministry as far as I know, but I will raise it." "Smokeless tobacco products have been proposed by some as safer alternatives to cigarettes, but they are not safe," said the author of the article in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, Prof. Stephen S. Hecht, an expert in cancer prevention at the University of Minnesota Cancer Center. "The only likely safe alternative to smoking is the long term use of nicotine replacement therapy as a means to reduce dependence. "In fact, this study lends evidence to support the notion that the oral use of tobacco actually provides a more efficient means for delivering certain carcinogens into the body through the bloodstream, although cigarette smoke includes a host of carcinogenic products that aren't a major factor in smokeless tobacco," he said. "American smokeless tobacco manufacturers are forbidden by federal law from claiming that smokeless tobacco is a safer alternative to smoking," Hecht said. "That does not prevent them from advancing the general concept that snuff can be used as a substitute for cigarettes, especially in places - like an office setting - where snuff may be acceptable while smoking is not."

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