Nicotine gum bites off more than it can chew

If Swedish Match does launch a nicotine gum, it will join other functional gums that are reviving the stale confectionery sector.

Tobacco giant Swedish Match is courting controversy with its plan to market a nicotine gum for smokers. If it goes ahead with the launch, the new product will be the first nicotine gum not to be sold as a stop-smoking aid (MW last week).

The product – which is likely to be sold to smokers for situations where they can’t smoke – will lay Swedish Match open to charges that it is cashing in on nicotine’s fiercely addictive properties.

But it is easy to see the attraction of the new product for the Scandinavian giant. Swedish Match is a world leader in smokeless tobacco products but its core product, Snus, a cross between snuff and chewing tobacco, is banned in most European Union countries. The product is close to a national obsession in Sweden.

Chewing tobacco was outlawed in the UK in the early Nineties after US Tobacco’s Skoal Bandits were found to cause mouth cancer.

Having sold its cigarette business two years ago – and with profits from its home market burning a hole in its pocket – Swedish Match agreed last December to form a joint venture with US company Gumtech International, to develop a range of nicotine gum.

The market for nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), the plethora of patches, gum and inhalers designed to wean smokers off their deadly habit, is booming.

According to industry estimates the UK market is growing 22 per cent by value year on year. It is worth about £65m – 50 per cent of which is gum. The market leader, Nicorette, which was first launched in 1978, is witnessing a 25 per cent annual value growth.

By comparison the UK market for chewing gum is worth £230.8m and is growing by 9.4 per cent.

Globally, the NRT market is growing rapidly, especially in Third World countries, often in parallel with the growth of tobacco.

The World Health Organisation is even encouraging Third World governments to make NRT available free to smokers who want to quit.

Up till now, nicotine gum has been marketed as a medicinal product, only available over the counter at chemists, complete with a booklet warning of the possible side-effects of continuing to smoke while using it.

Last year, in an effort to encourage more smokers to quit, British government agency the Medicine Control Council relaxed its rules to allow lower strength nicotine gum to be sold openly, which is where, presumably, Swedish Match comes in.

The Department of Health has given a cautious welcome to Swedish Match’s new project. “Our view is that anything which promotes cessation should be encouraged,” says a spokesman. But Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) has expressed concern about the dangers of spreading nicotine addiction to the young.

Swedish Match’s marketing plans are still under wraps but the temptation to market nicotine gum as a lifestyle product must be there.

Datamonitor senior food analyst Hugo Ehrnreich says: “There is a growing polarisation between indulgence and medicinal products.

“Energy drinks and energy sweets began as very functional products, offering replenishment to people who play sport. But they have become a club phenomenon and are used as a way of staying up all night.”

The market for functional gums, which deliver a real or imagined health benefit or stimulation, is growing fast.

Gumtech International’s US product portfolio ranges from the conventional, such as Chew & Sooth, for sore throats, to Sugar Blocker gum, which claims to reduce cravings for sweets.

Other US companies such as Balchem Encapsulates, which this month launched a vitamin C gum, and the Quigley Corporation, which markets Cold-Eeze, a homeopathic bubble gum, have also carved out niche markets.

Even Wrigley’s – the world’s largest chewing gum maker – has successfully launched Ice White, a teeth-whitening gum, and Airwaves, a decongestant, in Europe, and has test marketed a caffeine gum in the US.

The company is reluctant to talk about its plans, but a spokesman confirms further research is taking place.

One confectionery analyst says: “I would expect gum manufacturers to start leveraging their existing products into different areas, taking advantage of gum’s excellent properties as a pharmaceutical delivery mechanism.

“The growing interest in herbal remedies and anti-depressants such as St John’s Wort, could be an important driver.”

It would be easy to dismiss functional gum as a bizarre niche product or the stuff of science fiction. But latest predictions from Datamonitor show chewing gum is the fastest growing sector in the UK’s moribund confectionery market.

It is expected to grow by 8.3 per cent over the next four years, driven by sugar-free and functional ranges. If nothing else, this should give the UK’s beleaguered sweet makers something to chew over.

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