For a product rarely anyone had been aware of five years ago, they now seem to be on everyone’s lips. While much has been written about the safety of such products and their potential to either support or destroy efforts to reduce smoking rates, it’s timely to think about why the worldwide tobacco industry has taken such a keen desire for buying e-cigarette companies.
Despite e-cigarettes seemingly dominating public and academic debate on tobacco control, the international electronic cigarette market is minuscule compared to traditional cigarettes and tobacco products. Euromonitor estimates that the global electronic cigarette market was worth US$3 billion in 2013.
Compare this towards the global tobacco market, one of the most valuable fast moving consumer goods industries, worth approximately US$800 billion – a lot more than 260 times how big the e-cigarette market. This highly profitable tobacco market, outside China, is dominated and controlled just by five major players: Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco, British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International, and Altria/Philip Morris USA.
All of the global tobacco companies will have a stake in the e-cigarette market, with a lot of buying up independent e-cigarette companies.
Philip Morris International, referred to as PMI, has taken it a step further: in addition to recently purchasing UK electronic cigarette company Nicocigs Ltd, it will be launching the where to buy e cigs. Unlike e-cigs, which vapourise liquid nicotine, the HeatStick takes normal tobacco and heats it to 350 degrees Celsius to create a tobacco vapour.
PMI intends to introduce the Marlboro HeatStick in test markets in Japan and Italy later this coming year. Similar types of products were introduced within the 1990s, but failed dismally when smokers rejected both taste and absence of smoking satisfaction. PMI appears hopeful this latest generation of warmth technology could be more acceptable to smokers.
On the surface, it might seem like the tobacco sector is simply buying up these companies before they become a major threat to its profits. Or even, it sees a bright future for e-cigarettes and wishes to control the market.
But considering simply how much more profitable traditional cigarettes are than e-cigarettes, and also the tobacco industry’s long and chequered corporate history, it’s important to question the other motivations they may have.
Tobacco advertising on television is nearly universally banned, the tobacco-friendly states of Indonesia and Zimbabwe being two holdouts. This has been decades since a tobacco ad appeared on tv screens in the usa and Uk. But electronic cigarette marketing is a booming business in both countries with controversial television ad campaigns and celebrity endorsements.
Using celebrities, se.x, glamour, adventure, rebelliousness, youth and sweetness to promote addictive products is extremely familiar territory for the tobacco industry. These kinds of campaigns contradict the tobacco industry’s pubic relations message that it is only considering selling e-cigarettes to adults who are not able to give up smoking.
Enhance the proven fact that PMI cannot show packs of Marlboro on store shelves or splash the iconic red Marlboro chevron on Formula One cars, it can promote the US$69 billion Marlboro brand by putting it on the HeatStick product.
E-cigarettes may also help the tobacco industry undo the results of policies that have seen cigarettes pushed away from social settings that kept people smoking. While smoking bans are principally about protecting people, especially workers, from secondhand smoke, they may have an additional positive benefit of reducing smoking rates.
Pushing to enable electronic cigarette utilization in pubs and restaurants means there is absolutely no have to quit, because whenever you can’t smoke, simply use an e-cigarette instead. But, don’t forget to maintain smoking the actual stuff when you can too.
Since acquiring e-cigarette brands, not one tobacco company has stepped out of the way of tobacco control policy makers attempting to reduce smoking. The market has not raised a white flag and agreed to no longer oppose effective tobacco control policy reform.
It is actually business as usual: oppose, lobby and litigate when countries implement laws that impact on cigarette sales. Which is why the worldwide treaty to minimize tobacco use, the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, is explicit in banning tobacco industry influence in tobacco control policy. Choosing a “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict arzalp interest” in between the industry and public health means the industry will not be a welcome stakeholder in formulating public health policy.
E-cigarettes certainly are a potentially useful tool in giving the tobacco industry a seat back at the policy table. When it can indicate e-cigarettes as “proof” it cares about consumers and it is trying to reduce tobacco harms, then maybe it is going to no longer be shut from the regulatory process. Regardless of that e-cigarettes are a tiny percentage of its total business.
Lastly, e-cigarettes certainly are a huge distraction to tobacco control advocates and policy makers. Undoubtedly the tobacco industry celebrates witnessing the debate and division among tobacco control colleagues within the utility of e-cigarettes in reducing the harms of tobacco use. The less attention paid for the deadly US$800 billion arm in the business the greater.