*'Healthier' Cigarette Makes E-Debut

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R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. will sell its newest brand of cigarettes, Eclipse, exclusively on the Web, the company said at its shareholders meeting Wednesday.

This marks the first time a major cigarette manufacturer has gone online to sell cigarettes.

Eclipse is being marketed as "the next best choice" to quitting smoking. Unlike a normal cigarette, Eclipse creates smoke by heating moist tobacco rather than burning it. R.J. Reynolds asserts this new method is healthier for the smoker.

The cigarette may prove disconcerting to consumers in that it must be relit and it does not burn down like conventional cigarettes -- the cigarette in fact is the same length when the smoker is finished.

Because of the obvious confusion that consumers may have with such a product, the company elected to first offer the cigarette online at www.eclipse.rjrt.com where smokers can get information before making a purchase. Retail sales will follow at a later date.

"We're starting with a direct-to-consumer approach. Consumers have to be informed to give it a try," said Melinda Simmons, vice president of marketing at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Winston-Salem, NC. "The problem with making it available at retail immediately is that consumers get an uninformed trial. They'll try to fire it up, not understand it and be disappointed. This way we can control the information and make sure the trial is informed."

Using the Internet to sell a taboo product such as cigarettes will likely draw harsh criticism.

"We understand some people will be suspicious," said Brice O'Brien, marketing manager for the company. "It's more important to us as an adult-oriented product to verify the person we're having a dialogue with is over 21. That's what's most important to us as a marketer."

The company claims it has strict age verification technology to prevent underage smokers from purchasing its new product. It collects various information, including credit card numbers, for verification purposes. The company's verification product uses a database of more than 500 million records, according to O'Brien. The records include voter information and warranty and home purchase data.

"It's the most restrictive site," O'Brien said. "There isn't always a 100 percent match rate." Verification also can be done through traditional mail and by phone.

To promote the site, R.J. Reynolds will send out direct mail piece to its database of smokers this week. The company refused to quantify the size of its database.

The direct mail kit will include a letter, brochure and an order form. Consumers will also be given a pre-approved identification number and password to have easy access to the site.

The first Eclipse print campaign will launch this week in Dallas/Fort Worth area. Ads will appear in local newspapers and magazines.

Since Eclipse primarily heats tobacco, the company claims it "may present smokers with less risk of cancer, chronic bronchitis and possibly emphysema, when compared to other cigarettes."

All of the latest scientific research regarding the Eclipse brand is available on the site. This is for consumers, scientists and health care professionals who want to draw an informed opinion about the product, said O'Brien.

The cigarettes will be available to age-verified smokers in 38 states. Sales restrictions block sales in the dozen remaining states.

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