`Smokeless' cigarette hasn't caught on. Tests in Arizona, Missouri reveal smoker resistance to new product

The Premier ``smokeless'' cigarette is drawing less than rave reviews from some smokers and retailers, but RJR Nabisco Inc. is not ready to scrap a two-state test of the product's popularity. Despite consumer complaints about everything from the cigarette's taste and smell to its price and unusual construction, RJR claims Premier had ``the highest initial trial rate of any brand in recent history, probably because of the amount of publicity that it received.''

RJR spokeswoman Maura Payne said there are no plans to end the test run of the revolutionary cigarette introduced two months ago in Arizona and Missouri.

But the company said it had no figures on sales or consumer acceptance of the device, which heats tobacco to release the flavor but does not burn it.

Negative consumer reaction is only one of the problems besetting Premier's test run. Public-health advocates have called on the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the product as a drug.

A still greater threat to the product may lie in Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.'s proposed $24.53 billion leveraged buyout of RJR.

RJR chairman F.Ross Johnson has said Premier could cost $1 billion from drawing board to nationwide distribution. Analysts says the high debt costs of the buyout puts Premier's future in jeopardy. If the test-marketing lags, they say the new owners would be more likely to allow the product to go up in smoke.

Merchants in St. Louis and in Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., where Premier was introduced in October, say the smokeless cigarette is not catching on with consumers.

Don Barnes, regional marketing director for Phoenix-based Circle K, said Arizona sale figures through the chain of convenience stores were confidential, but he characterized them as modest.

John Spinck, who manages a 7-11 store in downtown Phoenix, said he took on an initial 10 cartons and had sold three packs, leaving 97 on the shelves.

Ron Purcell, manager of a Tinder Box store in west St. Louis County, said he stocked Premier initially but would not reorder them. ``It seems like every sale is a one-shot deal,'' he said.

Smokers who have tried Premier are convinced the new product will attract few converts. They say it's not so much the higher price for Premier - 30 to 50 cents more a pack than regular cigarettes - or the annoying fact that they burn themselves out if left unattended. The worst reviews come from the taste.

But RJR officials say they are not discouraged.

New videos that promote the product's lack of sidestream smoke are being sent to stores in the distribution chain, Ms. Payne said.

They are not part of a crash program to save Premier, but instead are one of several phases in the advertising campaign, she said.

RJR's plan to test-market Vantage Excel 100s, a reduced-smoke cigarette, in January is also unrelated to reports of Premier's troubles, Payne said.

One of RJR's key marketing assumptions was that consumers would be so attracted to a low-tar cigarette that was less offensive to nonsmokers that they would take time to acquire a taste for the new product.

But people are not buying the two or three packs the company believes is needed to get used to the differences in taste, aroma, and experience.

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