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Major tobacco companies have technology to reduce carcinogen levels but do not apply it to popular smokeless tobacco products
  1. Stephen S Hecht,
  2. Irina Stepanov,
  3. Dorothy K Hatsukami
  1. Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
  1. Correspondence to Stephen S Hecht, Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, MMC 806, 420 Delaware St SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA; hecht002{at}

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In 2006, Reynolds American, Inc (RAI), a major tobacco company, purchased the American Snuff Company, LLC (formerly Conwood Company), manufacturer of the moist snuff products Grizzly and Kodiak. In January 2009, Altria Group, Inc (the parent company of Philip Morris USA), one of the world's largest tobacco companies, acquired the United States Smokeless Tobacco Company (USST), manufacturer of the popular moist snuff products Copenhagen and Skoal, sales of which totalled over 540 million cans in 2009. Smokeless tobacco is carcinogenic to humans, causing oral, pancreatic and esophageal cancer.1 2 It has been known since the 1970s that smokeless tobacco products such as Copenhagen and Skoal contain relatively high levels of the carcinogenic tobacco-specific nitrosamines N′-nitrosonornicotine (NNN) and 4-(methylnitrosamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK), themselves considered human carcinogens.2 The typical 1–10 ppm amounts of both NNN and NNK in these products are hundreds to thousands of times higher than carcinogenic nitrosamine levels in non-tobacco products such as cured meat or beer.3 No evidence has been found that Conwood and USST took any meaningful steps to reduce the relatively high levels of NNN and NNK in their products.

To determine if NNN and NNK levels in smokeless tobacco have changed since RAI and Altria purchased Conwood and USST, we analysed selected products. The products analysed included traditional brands such as Copenhagen, Skoal, Grizzly and Kodiak, and the newer ‘spit-less’ brands such as Camel Snus and Marlboro Snus, which are sold as small pouches of flavoured tobacco with low moisture content. The analysis was performed by a standard validated method4 (see table 1).

Table 1

NNN and NNK in recently purchased smokeless tobacco products*

The results demonstrate that RAI and Altria possess the technology to reduce NNN and NNK levels in smokeless tobacco. Evidence for this is the substantially reduced NNN and NNK levels found in their ‘spit-less’ smokeless tobacco products Camel Snus, manufactured and heavily promoted by RAI, and Marlboro Snus, manufactured by Altria, and modest reductions in some traditional products.4 5 The Camel Snus and Marlboro Snus levels of NNN and NNK are similar to those found in Swedish snus products.6 It has been known for more than three decades that the type of tobacco chosen; the agricultural, curing and storage processes used; and other manufacturing processes including pasteurisation—introduced for Swedish snus products—have a large effect on NNN and NNK levels.2 6 Why haven't such modifications been applied fully in the manufacturing of Copenhagen, Skoal, Grizzly and Kodiak, which collectively command more than 75% of the smokeless tobacco market share in the United States, and have NNN and NNK levels which are five to eight times as great as those in Camel Snus and Marlboro Snus?

We conclude that RAI and Altria have done relatively little to reduce NNK and NNN levels in their most popular smokeless tobacco brands, in spite of the fact that they have the technology to do so. They aggressively market products such as Camel Snus while quietly profiting from their carcinogen-contaminated popular brands Skoal, Copenhagen, Grizzly and Kodiak—actions which could be described as a ‘snus-screen’. The public health community and regulatory agencies should take note of this questionable behaviour by major purveyors of carcinogenic products.

What this paper adds

Recent product analyses provide no evidence that major tobacco companies have attempted to reduce the levels of carcinogenic tobacco-specific nitrosamines in their most popular smokeless tobacco products, while heavily promoting ‘spit-less’ products with lower nitrosamine levels.


We thank Aleksandar Knezevich for technical assistance.



  • Funding Our research on smokeless tobacco is supported by grants CA-81301, CA-141531, CA-1135884, and DA-013333 from the US National Institutes of Health.

  • Competing interests SSH is a witness for the plaintiff in a smokeless tobacco case. DKH has a grant from Nabi Biopharmaceuticals to conduct a clinical trial for the nicotine vaccine.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.