Is ‘Big Caffeine’ on the horizon?

Electronic cigarettes are dividing the public health community. Could a new caffeine product be about to do the same?

Caffeine makes the world go round, or at least that’s the impression one gets when watching commuters clutching their grande lattes and the proliferation of coffee shops throughout town centres and travel terminals.

Of course caffeine is not merely restricted to coffee but is increasingly found in an expanding number of energy drinks (as well as chocolate, tea, tablets etc).

Clearly our appetite for caffeination and stimulation is not being sufficiently satiated by these existing products; Reuters reports the launch this week of Reon, dubbed ‘on-the-go caffeine strips’ by its manufacturer. According to news reports Reon is still in market-testing stage, for now only being sold in select stores in Manchester and online.


Naturally, as one of those aforementioned commuters found most mornings clutching to a coffee for dear life I decided to procure a sample of Reon and see if it lives up to its billing as the “smart and innovative way to transform your day”.

Having plumped for the Blackcurrant and Fresh flavour I pulled the strip from its packaging and popped the strip on my tongue. It promptly dissolved leaving a strong menthol like taste in my mouth followed by a slightly acrid after-taste after 5-10 minutes (perhaps as a results of the delivery method- or more likely perhaps because of my own devastated pallet).

And yes, very quickly I was able to identify a distinct feeling of alertness- similar to a small instant coffee or a “can of coke” as described on the packet.


So “caffeinated mouth strips perform as advertised”. That’s not much of a review is it? Well no, but the real interest of Reon for me lies not necessary in the performance of the product- but rather it’s provenance.

Reon it transpires is a new product from Fontem Ventures, “a subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco that is dedicated to developing and growing a portfolio of innovative non-tobacco product opportunities in lifestyle and consumer good categories.”

As Martine Geller at Reuters points out “Big Tobacco firms are increasingly diversifying away from cigarettes, a market worth over $700 billion a year at retail but shrinking in many countries for health reasons.”

Indeed, increasing consumer-awareness of the negative health consequences of tobacco smoking, coupled with increasingly stringent public health measures, trading restrictions and fiscal penalties appear to be focusing the minds of tobacco executives on business opportunities in alternative (and less formidable) markets and goods categories.

Despite caffeine’s relatively benign nature Big Tobacco’s venture into this marketplace is bound to set alarm bells ringing amongst public health policy makers. Despite Reon being targeted at “young professionals” aged 25-45, there are no restrictions on sales to minors. And concerns are already being raised by the likes of the World Health Organisation concerning “potentially harmful adverse and developmental effects” amongst young people that consume ‘caffeine laden energy drinks’ (admittedly the warnings apply to energy drinks- but they are high in caffeine).

Conversely the European Food Safety Authority released its draft assessment on caffeine earlier this month, which made a number of provisional conclusions:

  • Single doses of caffeine up to 200mg and daily intakes of up to 400mg do not raise safety concerns for adults in Europe.
  • It is unlikely that caffeine interacts adversely with other constituents of ‘energy drinks’- such as taurine and D-glucurono-y-lactone or alcohol.
  • For pregnant women, caffeine intakes of up to 200mg a day do not raise safety concerns for the foetus.
  • For children (3-10 years) and adolescents (10-18) years, daily intakes of 3mg per kg of body weight are considered safe.

With these (provisional) conclusions in mind (and taking into account negative findings) how should public health policy makers react to Big Tobacco’s move into the caffeine market?

Certainly caffeine (or more particularly) coffee has long had an interesting and complicated relationship with lawmakers and other public officials. Ever since it was recognized that coffee contained a compound that acted as a stimulant it has variously faced bans and restrictions on its use with the likes of Charles II of England, Frederick II of Prussia and the Ottoman Empire turning their legislative ire on the substance.

History aside, from a purely economic perspective the tobacco industry’s diversification into this product category makes rational sense. Any business currently operating in a market that is being squeezed by regulation and restrictions (and with regulators and government officials regularly referring to an ‘endgame’ for said market) would seek to move into ‘freer’, more profitable markets that impose fewer barriers to trade and operation.

And caffeine most certainly looks like an appealing product category for a well-capitalised business- to quote Geoffrey Burchfield (1997) “Global consumption of caffeine has been estimated at 120,000 tonnes per year, making it the world’s most popular psychoactive substance. This amounts to one serving of a caffeinated beverage for every person every day.”

Should these diversification efforts prove successful and the tobacco industry gains a foothold in the caffeinated goods market it will be instructive to see the view the response of the public health milieu.

As the emergence of electronic cigarettes have caused significant divisions within the public health community, will Big Tobacco’s involvement in the provision of caffeine have a similar effect? Is there going to be the emergence of a ‘Big Caffeine’ (as a proxy for ‘Big Tobacco’) v public health dichotomy? Will we see harm-reduction advocates applauding the transition of the tobacco industry into non-tobacco product categories? Will we in turn see the abstention (prohibition?)-inclined wing of public health decrying any involvement of the tobacco industry in caffeine (pointing to the addictive nature of caffeine and reported negative health impacts of consumption amongst young people for example)?

Whatever your stance on the desired and undesired health impacts of caffeine intake- and the involvement of the tobacco industry in this product category, it is clear that this diversification- if successful- could well pose some major headaches for the public health movement in the years ahead.


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