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In its third quarter report Swedish Match announced a new corporate vision – ‘A world without cigarettes’. Entry into this brave new world is enabled by the availability of products ‘recognised as safer alternatives to cigarettes’. As a non combustible tobacco product snus may be unofficially be so regarded but officially this product is lumped together with cigarettes in terms of dire health warnings. The company is currently seeking to change this situation having submitted a lorry load of data aimed at refuting two of the health warnings compulsorily carried by its products in the US.
How this turns out will be of great significance for the global moist snuff business: a positive result would also help in Sweden’s ongoing crusade to get the EU oral snuff ban lifted. Meanwhile the obvious question is whether current progress of Swedish Match’s oral snuff products and particularly snus, and the performance of smokeless tobacco in general, justifies its vision of a world without cigarettes.
In the third quarter Swedish Match reported increased sales and operating profit compared with the same quarter in 2013 but ironically, the strongest growth came not from snus but from its ‘other tobacco products’ category which includes a combustible product – cigars, and the most unfashionable sector of the smokeless tobacco market – chewing tobacco. The existence of Swedish Match’s thriving USD cigar business begs the question – are cigars allowed in the world without cigarettes vision?
The company’s third quarter snus performance was encouraging though not spectacular: volumes were stable in Scandinavia with growth in Norway balanced by a slight fall in Sweden despite the company estimating that the total Swedish snus market grew by some 4% in volume over the third quarter. Value priced products account for some 44% of the Swedish market and Swedish Match now accounts for just over 38% of the sector according to the company. A major share of this segment is necessary despite the lower margins because this is where most of the volume growth has been coming from.
There is a (metaphorical) cloud on the horizon, however in that snus taxes are likely to increase by 12% in January 2015 compared with 6% for cigarettes. This is a budget proposal and not certain but appears likely to come to pass with the potential for altering the market dynamic between cigarettes and snus in a way not beneficial to Swedish Match.
There was growth in US snuff and snus shipments and Swedish Match concentrated on growing the General brand to be ready to take full advantage, should the FDA hand Swedish Match the huge marketing fillip of responding positively to its modified risk submissions.
On August 25th the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that Swedish Match’s Modified Rissk Tobacco Product (MRTP) applications for its General snus line of products sold in the US were complete and these were subsequently made publicly available for comment. In its 3Q report Swedish Match stated that it had thus become ‘the first company to have an MRTP application accepted as complete by the FDA’. Of course this does not mean that the FDA will take the potentially game changing step of accepting General as a modified risk tobacco product though having reached first base in a sense puts General snus one jump ahead of e-cigarettes in the reduced risk status stakes despite the fact that e-cigarettes contain no tobacco at all (though e-cigarettes are not required to carry the same health warnings as snus despite being subject to many of the same restrictions in terms of distribution and usage).
Although there is no clear evidence suggesting that smokeless tobacco users are switching to e-cigarettes, it is likely that a proportion of cigarette smokers switching to moist snuff for reasons of perceived lower health risk and/or economy may be switching to e-cigarettes instead. Circumstantial evidence that this is happening resides in the slackening of oral snuff volume growth in the US and the far higher growth rate in e-cigarette volumes notwithstanding the status of e-cigarettes as a relatively new product feeding on discontented health conscious and/or price conscious smokers in an old market.
Swedish Match’s vision of the company taking advantage of a world without cigarettes is justified to some extent by the Swedish model where usership of snus is higher than for cigarettes. However there are many formidable obstacles to even a slight replication of the Swedish model in other markets. Chief among these perhaps is the lack of any regulatory acceptance of oral snuff as a less risky product than cigarettes, indeed the EU bizarrely appears to regard the product as more dangerous. Hence the second obstacle to be overcome, namely the oral snuff ban in the EU, the markets of which would perhaps be most likely to adopt the product. The third obstacle is the lack of an oral tobacco tradition in most of the world’s major tobacco markets. The best growth prospect is the US, by far the world’s most valuable smokeless tobacco market, where Swedish Match now makes about 40% by volume of its global moist snuff sales. The importance of an FDA yes to the MRTP application to overcoming these three obstacles is, for Swedish Match, immense.