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The Associated Press February 23, 2010, 10:57AM ET

Idaho senator's switch helps kill tobacco ban bill

An Idaho senator whose husband is a tobacco-company lobbyist snuffed out a bill Monday to ban the industry's latest product.

Sen. Melinda Smyser, R-Parma, changed her vote after members of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee initially voted 5-4 for a bill that would bar dissolvable tobacco lozenges, strips and sticks now being tested by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Another company is already selling such lozenges here.

Smyser's switch killed the measure.

Boise Democrat Elliot Werk, the measure's sponsor, compared dissolvable tobacco to candy, saying the attractively packaged products could get teens hooked on nicotine. Utah is considering a similar ban.

Smyser's husband, Skip Smyser, lobbies for Altria Group Inc., maker of Marlboro cigarettes and Skoal smokeless tobacco. Altria doesn't currently have dissolvable tobacco products on the market, but a company spokesman in Richmond, Va., declined to say whether it's developing similar items to those from rival R.J. Reynolds.

"We don't comment on product development," said Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Altria's Philip Morris USA unit.

Smyser noted a possible conflict of interest, as is required by Senate rules, before her first vote to approve the measure. She said after the hearing that her husband's work didn't affect her change of heart but didn't explain why she switched sides.

"I'm just an individual person that makes my own decisions," Smyser told The Associated Press.

The committee debated the measure intensely, with several Republicans expressing skepticism. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur D'Alene, argued dissolvable tobacco products actually reduce second-hand smoke.

Smyser didn't speak up during the debate.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter appointed the 51-year-old GOP activist from rural southwestern Idaho to the District 11 Senate seat in January 2009 to replace Brad Little, who was elevated to lieutenant governor. In addition to lobbying for Altria, her husband is a former state House and Senate member.

Altria is among companies hoping to increase their market share in smokeless tobacco products as tax hikes, health concerns, smoking bans and social stigma cut demand for cigarettes. In 2009, the industry estimates cigarette volumes fell about 8 percent, partly because of a 62-cents-per-pack federal tax increase that took effect in April.

R.J. Reynolds said it's pleased with initial testing of dissolvable tobacco products under its Camel brand in three cities: Portland, Ore., Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio. David Howard, a spokesman, said the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based company is merely responding to adult demand for new tobacco products and does not want to target teens.

"There is nothing, not one thing about them, that is anything like candy," he said.

Star Scientific Inc., formerly known as Star Tobacco and Pharmaceuticals, already sells small tobacco lozenges in Idaho retail stores under the brand names Ariva and Stonewall.

The Food and Drug Administration asked Star and R.J. Reynolds this month to produce research and marketing information about dissolvable tobacco products, saying they could be particularly appealing to young adults.

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