Circle K Testing New Cigarette That Helps Smokers Smoke Less in Select Stores

VLN cigarettes contain 95 percent less nicotine than conventional combustible cigarettes.
Circle K VLN pilot test
Photo credit: Matt Marton

CHICAGO — Select Chicago-area Circle K stores are piloting a new combustible cigarette containing minimal to non-addictive levels of nicotine as part of a national pilot.

VLN cigarettes, which contain 95 percent less nicotine than conventional cigarettes, are the first combustible tobacco cigarettes authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help adult smokers smoke less.

VLN cigarettes are now available exclusively at more than 150 Circle K convenience stores across Chicagoland. Participating pilot launch stores are located in Chicago, suburban Cook County and the bordering collar counties. The Illinois Attorney General's Tobacco Enforcement Bureau added VLN cigarettes to the Illinois Directory of Manufacturers listing on April 4, clearing the way for distribution.

Developed by 22nd Century Group Inc., a pack of VLN cigarettes will be similarly priced to full nicotine premium brands, approximately $9 to $12 depending on tax. Illinois is the second most expensive cigarette retail market in the United States.

The three- to six-month pilot will be the first U.S. sales of VLN King and VLN Menthol King cigarettes.

22nd Century is a leading agricultural biotechnology company focused on tobacco harm reduction, reduced nicotine tobacco, and improving health and wellness through modern plant science. The company is also launching VLN cigarettes in South Korea, its first international market. Following the pilot, 22nd Century and Circle K intend to expand sales nationwide to more than 7,000 stores in 48 states.

The proprietary tobacco was the subject of 10 years of research and more than 50 government-funded, independent clinical trials. The research was conducted by public health institutions and universities, including: the FDA; the National Institute on Drug Abuse; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the National Cancer Institute; Johns Hopkins University; and Mayo Clinic, to name a few.

According to the company, the research found: 

  • A 50-percent reduction of cigarettes per day after 20 weeks
  • More smoke-free days and quit attempts
  • A reduction in cravings and withdrawal symptoms

As a result of these and other scientific evidence, VLN received the FDA's first and only modified risk tobacco product (MRTP) authorization granted for a combustible tobacco cigarette. Additionally, the FDA requires each package of VLN to prominently display the evidence-based claim "Helps you smoke less."

"We know that three out of four adult smokers want to quit," said Mitch Zeller, former director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, in the FDA's December 2021 MRTP authorization press release for 22nd Century's VLN King and Menthol King cigarettes. "The data on these products show they can help addicted adult smokers transition away from highly addictive combusted cigarettes."

Chicago Medical Society President Dr. Tariq Butt said he and others at the Chicago Medical Society intend to closely review the independent research cited by the FDA.

"As a primary care physician, I've lost patients because they were unable to quit smoking," Butt said. "We can't ignore new products that could help people smoke less. If the FDA says this reduced nicotine cigarette will help people smoke less, then as doctors it's something we need to consider for patients."

According to James A. Mish, CEO of 22nd Century Group, "Studies show that at least half of all adult smokers try to quit each year, and VLN cigarettes give them an alternative that tastes, smells and burns like a cigarette but greatly reduces their nicotine consumption."

Michael Zercher, president and chief operating officer of 22nd Century Group, said the company is focused on harm reduction and plant technology/science and not affiliated with "big tobacco" companies.

"More than 30 million Americans still smoke despite decades-long attempts to migrate smokers to other forms of nicotine delivery, taxing cigarettes, banning public smoking, and numerous education campaigns about the dangers of smoking," Zercher said. "22nd Century Group is the only company approaching the problem by removing the addictive element from combustible cigarettes, an approach the FDA projects could save 8 million lives by the end of the decade if the nicotine levels of all cigarettes were to be reduced to the levels achieved by VLN."

In addition to "Helps you smoke less," the FDA authorized VLN to make the following claims:

  • " 95 percent less nicotine."
  • "Helps reduce your nicotine consumption.
  • "…Greatly reduces your nicotine consumption."

In 2017, the FDA announced a comprehensive plan to limit the level of nicotine in all cigarettes, rendering them minimally addictive or nonaddictive. To be clear, no cigarette is safer even if it contains much less nicotine. VLN must still include Surgeon General's warnings and FDA-authorized language on its packaging and marketing materials.

"We applaud the FDA on this plan and fully support all cigarettes containing only minimally or non-addictive levels of nicotine," said Dr. Butt of the Chicago Medical Society.

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