Chewing tobacco once conjured up images of businessmen using spittoons and baseball players spitting during a game, but those images are outdated. Today the chewing tobacco industry is targeting a new customer, reports Bloomberg.

Oral pouch products with names like Epok and Ace Superwhite are being positioned as a replacement for cigarettes. Traditional smokes are a more than $700 billion-a-year global business that for decades has been dogged by health concerns and changing social norms that have led to a steady decline of users.

The tobacco industry had hoped to steer smokers toward vaping, but that effort backfired when minors became users in part due to fruity vape flavors, while some users began adding harmful chemicals to their vaping equipment. Then came COVID-19, when public-health agencies warned that smoking may worsen symptoms of the virus.

These issues created an opening for new oral tobacco products that are not heated or inhaled. Altria Group this month won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to market the IQOS tobacco heating system as a modified risk product with a reduced exposure claim. IQOS is the first next-generation inhalable tobacco product to be authorized as a modified risk tobacco product. The IQOS system heats tobacco but doesn’t burn it like combustible cigarettes.

Last October, the FDA announced that Swedish Match AB’s snus has a lower risk of causing mouth cancer, heart disease, lung cancer, stroke, emphysema and chronic bronchitis than cigarettes. Currently, the agency is reviewing a bid by Marlboro maker Altria to get the same status for its Copenhagen snuff fine cut and a bid by Reynolds American for its Camel snus.

“The oral pouch seems to be the first oral tobacco product that is taken seriously as an alternative to cigarettes,” said Chris Bunka, chief executive officer, Lexaria Bioscience, a Canadian biotech company that’s working on ways to increase the speed at which nicotine reaches the brain.

This year, global retail sales of the moist snuffs are expected to reach $12.7 billion, up 4.8% from 2019, according to Euromonitor International—even though snus isn’t sold in most of the European Union. At the same time, chewing tobacco is estimated to see $1 billion in sales, and vaping product sales are expected to hit $22.6 billion.

Oral pouch products don’t require spitting because tobacco or other solids are enclosed inside single-serving pouches that are held between the gums and lips, sucked on discreetly and easily discarded like chewing gum. Those factors make them more appealing to young or female consumers who’ve rejected traditional snuff products. They’re also available in flavors, such as citrus, berry, mint and cinnamon.

Lexaria, which holds patents on methods that get fat-soluble drugs into the bloodstream quickly, signed a licensing deal with Altria in 2018. Bunka has seen more interest in Lexaria’s patents from global tobacco companies, which wouldn’t be restricted by the U.S.-only deal with Altria.

The Lexaria-Altria deal is but one example of how the race to provide nicotine without combustion—or even tobacco—is heating up, Bloomberg says. Swedish Match has sold Zyn nicotine pouches in the U.S. since 2016 and is expanding fast. British American Tobacco PLC’s modern oral category, which includes the Epok and Velo brands, saw revenue jump 273% last year to $162 million, outpacing that of heated tobacco and vapor products.

Altria entered the oral nicotine pouch market in 2019 when it bought a $372 million stake in Burger Söhne Holding AG and agreed to start distributing the Swiss company’s On! brand in the United States. In a trial of adult smokers and dippers who used On! for six weeks, more than a quarter of smokers and 70% of dippers completely switched to On! Products, Altria said. Women were as likely as men to switch.

The On! pouches, available in seven flavors and five nicotine strengths, are tobacco-free. That puts them in the growing category of “white” or “modern” pouches that don’t contain tobacco leaf, only the nicotine that’s extracted from it. Rogue, Dryft, Velo, Epok and Fiedler & Lundgren AB’s Lyft nicotine pouches are all in that category, Bloomberg reports.

The On! brand team plans to use Altria’s large database of tobacco users to reach consumers. Even though On! doesn’t contain tobacco, Altria has said the product’s marketing will comply with all laws involving the sale of tobacco and only target users over age 21.

That hasn’t silenced critics. “Tobacco-free is a deceptive language,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, noting that it’s the nicotine in such products that’s addictive, and the industry’s own internal documents have indicated how flavors help attract younger users.

So far, oral nicotine has demonstrated a solid safety edge over cigarettes and older forms of oral tobacco. Some newer kinds of oral nicotine also use pasteurization, which kills the bacteria blamed for chewing tobacco’s carcinogenic chemicals, said Dr. Michael Steinberg, a professor at Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Still, he says, “We don’t know that snus is harmless.” Evidence suggests that it increases the risk of heart attacks, dental disease and some cancers, he told Bloomberg.

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