Why, though? A cigarette that didn’t smoke

RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. was ahead of its time with a smokeless cigarette. Unfortunately, it tasted terrible.

The RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s umbrella includes several cigarette brands, including Camel, Newport, and Pall Mall. But its so-called
“smokeless” cigarette would turn out to be incredibly short-lived.

A man holds his nose in disgust next to a giant pack of cigarettes on an orange background.

What happened?

In 1988, RJR launched Premier, which looked like a regular cigarette but contained tobacco pellets and flavor beads. When lit, users inhaled nicotine aerosol, no tar, and only a little smoke.

The idea was that health-conscious consumers could either switch to Premier, or use it as a stepping stone to quitting.

What went wrong?

RJR tested Premier in both the US — Arizona and Missouri, specifically — and Japan, and smokers in both countries hated the taste. One tester likened it to burning plastic. Also:

  • It was smelly when lit with a traditional sulfur match.
  • It was complicated to light.

The product’s shortcomings weren’t the only trouble: the anti-smoking movement was starting to gain momentum, annually reducing industrywide cigarette sales ~3% throughout the ’80s, and narrowing Premier’s window for success.

In the end, RJR spent an estimated $800m developing Premier, but discontinued it within a year.

RJR tried again…

… with Eclipse, marketed as a low-smoke alternative, but those were found to be as unhealthy as regular cigarettes. Then, in 2014, came Revo — a similar product that heated, but didn’t burn tobacco — but that didn’t catch on either.

Yet a cigarette you couldn’t smoke wasn’t that wild an idea, considering how quickly the e-cigarette market took off and its continued popularity.

  • The CDC reported that between 2020 and 2022, monthly e-cigarette sales increased by 46.6%, especially among younger consumers who enjoy their sweet flavors.

Thus, it’s not surprising that RJR parent company Reynolds American Inc. spun off an e-cigarette subsidiary, RJ Reynolds Vapor, in 2012.

However, it continues to grapple with the FDA, which banned its menthol offerings last fall.

Perhaps, much like its consumers, RJR finds it hard to… just quit.

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