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Smoke without fire

Jai Arjun Singh | August 09, 2003

It's the near-utopian scenario many addicted smokers -- and researchers around the world -- have been dreaming about for years.

A product that provides the same kick as tobacco without any of the attendant health hazards. "Kissing the sky" without having to worry about spending your last days in a hospital ward. In short -- smoking without the cancer.

The search for an effective tobacco substitute has been a largely fruitless one. Now, an Indian company believes it has successfully ended the quest for the Holy Grail.

Dalmia Consumer Care Private Limited, part of the Rs 1,200-crore (Rs 12 billion) Dalmia Group, claims that its newly launched Vardaan biri (that's how they insist on spelling it) provides "the first real safer and healthier tobacco alternative".

If it's true, that's quite an achievement for a company that was only established in January. But the group says it has been researching ways to perfect the puff for years.

Vardaan Biri, launched in June, is priced at Rs 4 per bundle and is also available at Re 1 for 5 bidis and Rs 2 for 10 bidis. "Our goal is to convince 10 per cent of the country's bidi consumers to switch to this safer and healthier option," says Sudershan Banerjee, managing director and CEO, Dalmia Consumer Care.

To this end, the company has launched print and radio advertisements. "We are also reaching out to the masses through direct marketing," says Banerjee. This takes such forms as road dances explaining the ills of tobacco, which is presumably the best way to reach the man on the street.

The aim is to be in 63 cities by the end of August and in 150 cities by year-end. Dalmia Consumer Care has 100 employees and the distribution is outsourced.

The company estimates that between Rs 50 crore (Rs 500 million) and Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) will be spent on the product in the next two to three years, much of which will go into marketing.

Three manufacturing units -- two in West Bengal and one in Andhra Pradesh -- have been set up for Vardaan production. The ingredient is developed separately, rolled into bidis in the cooperative sector and then baked and packed in factories.

Why only bidis? The company says it has not yet been able to mimic the cigarette kick satisfactorily. "We do hope to get into cigarettes at some point but we're not ready for it yet," says Banerjee.

But he also hopes to make a virtue out of necessity. "If our aim is to be a 'vardaan' to humankind, then it anyway makes more sense to target those who have zero medical benefits. Bidi smokers fall in that category."

Besides, he says, as many as 15 crore (150 million) bidis are smoked every hour in India, more than seven times the corresponding figure for cigarette consumption.

Dalmia is targeting the rural mindset. "We are currently marketing and selling in cities but in the next six to eight months we will move into towns and villages as well," Banerjee says.

It's a telling statistic, he points out, that 32 per cent of India's bidi consumption takes place in the six major cities -- Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Estimates put the size of the bidi market in India between Rs 12,000 crore (Rs 120 billion) and Rs 15,000 crore (Rs 150 billion) annually.

The Vardaan story began in 1990 when the Dalmia Centre for Research & Development, an ISO-accredited laboratory, was set up in Coimbatore to leverage the country's vast Ayurveda knowledge for medicinal purposes.

"The idea was to utilise India's flora in a scientific way," says Banerjee. "The research aimed at finding cures for diseases like asthma, by using indigenously developed drugs."

Four years ago, says Banerjee, the researchers found certain leaves that, when mixed together, mimicked the effect of tobacco but did not have carcinogenic properties.

How exactly do they define the tobacco effect? There are, the company claims, 10 indices that go to make up the "kick" for smokers; these include sweetness, moisture, burning quality, mouth feel, throat feel and sensual feel.

Simulate these and you have something that replicates the smoking experience. This is what the company believes it has done -- only, there's no tobacco in the mix.

"Naturally, we didn't want to get overexcited so we began a testing process to ensure there were no harmful side effects," Banerjee says. "We worked with the Government of India Laboratory and the Arista Labs in the US and by 2002-end we were satisfied that the product was completely safe."

Products based on this formulation were also scrutinised by various doctors -- like Dr Ashok Patel, a noted onco-surgeon from Ahmedabad, who has endorsed Vardaan as being safer than tobacco.

The next step was putting the product to the ultimate test -- by getting experienced smokers to try it and comment on its potency."We got 120,000 users to try real tobacco as well as our substitute," says Banerjee, "and nine out of 10 couldn't tell which was which."

However, this view of the bidi's effectiveness doesn't wash with some experts. Dr Sameer Kaul, an oncologist with Apollo Hospitals, put the product through a test of his own -- by tasting it himself and getting a few others to try it.

Says Kaul: "It doesn't replicate the normal bidi kick. In fact, it tastes simply like leaves burning." After putting Vardaan through a lab test at the hospital, Kaul does concur that the product has no nicotine content. But he's sceptical about claims that the product will provide bidi regulars the kick they're accustomed to. "This could just be a form of hardsell," he says.

But Banerjee insists that Dalmia is not in the business of encouraging smoking, adding that no one in the company smokes.

"Our aim is certainly not to initiate new customers into the habit. The message is simple: first, try and give up smoking. If you can't do that, switch to Vardaan, since it is the healthier alternative."

It remains to be seen whether Vardaan lives up to its billing. Dalmia's corporate affairs head Madhu Singh calls it "potentially as revolutionary as the discovery of penicillin". Experienced smokers will decide the accuracy of that lofty claim.

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