For a product hardly 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 ruin efforts to lessen smoking rates, it’s timely to think about why the international tobacco industry has taken such a keen interest in buying e-cigarette companies.
Despite e-cigarettes seemingly dominating public and academic debate on tobacco control, the international e-cigarette industry is minuscule in comparison to traditional cigarettes and tobacco products. Euromonitor estimates the global e-cigarette market was worth US$3 billion in 2013.
Compare this to the global tobacco market, just about the most valuable fast moving consumer goods industries, worth approximately US$800 billion – greater than 260 times the size of the e-cigarette market. This highly profitable tobacco market, away from China, is dominated and controlled by simply five major players: Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco, British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International, and Altria/Philip Morris USA.
Virtually all of the global tobacco companies now have a stake within the electronic cigarette market, with a lot of buying up independent e-cigarette companies.
Philip Morris International, called PMI, has taken it a step further: along with recently purchasing UK electronic cigarette company Nicocigs Ltd, it will be launching the ecig brands. Unlike e-cigs, which vapourise liquid nicotine, the HeatStick takes normal tobacco and heats it to 350 degrees Celsius to produce a tobacco vapour.
PMI intends to introduce the Marlboro HeatStick in test markets in Japan and Italy later this season. Similar types of products were introduced within the 1990s, but failed dismally when smokers rejected both taste and insufficient smoking satisfaction. PMI appears hopeful this latest generation of heat technology could be more acceptable to smokers.
On the surface, it could seem like the tobacco sector is simply buying up these firms before they turn into a major threat to the profits. Or perhaps, which it sees a bright future for e-cigarettes and wants to control the marketplace.
But considering just how much more profitable traditional cigarettes are than e-cigarettes, as well as the tobacco industry’s long and chequered corporate history, it’s vital that you question what other motivations they might have.
Tobacco advertising on television is almost universally banned, the tobacco-friendly states of Indonesia and Zimbabwe being two holdouts. It has been decades since a tobacco ad appeared on tv screens in america and Great Britain. But electronic cigarette marketing is actually a booming business both in countries with controversial television ad campaigns and celebrity endorsements.
Using celebrities, se.x, glamour, adventure, rebelliousness, youth and beauty to market addictive products is quite familiar territory for that tobacco industry. These types of campaigns contradict the tobacco industry’s pubic relations message that it is only interested in selling e-cigarettes to adults who are not able to give up smoking.
Add to the proven fact that PMI can no longer show packs of Marlboro on store shelves or splash the iconic red Marlboro chevron on Formula One cars, it may promote the usa$69 billion Marlboro brand by putting it on the HeatStick product.
E-cigarettes can also assist the tobacco industry undo the effects of policies that have seen cigarettes pushed out of social settings that kept people smoking. While smoking bans are principally about protecting people, especially workers, from secondhand smoke, they have got an additional positive benefit of reducing smoking rates.
Pushing to allow e-cigarette use within pubs and restaurants means there is not any have to quit, because when you can’t smoke, just use an e-cigarette instead. But, don’t forget to help keep smoking the true stuff when you are able too.
Since acquiring e-cigarette brands, not one tobacco company has stepped out of the way of tobacco control policy makers trying to reduce smoking. The market has not yet raised a white flag and consented 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 global treaty to reduce tobacco use, the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, is explicit in banning tobacco industry influence in tobacco control policy. Finding a “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict arzalp interest” involving the industry and public health means the market is not a welcome stakeholder in formulating public health policy.
E-cigarettes certainly are a potentially great tool in giving the tobacco industry a seat back at the policy table. If this can point out e-cigarettes as “proof” it cares about consumers and is attempting to reduce tobacco harms, then perhaps it can not be shut out from the regulatory process. No matter that e-cigarettes certainly are a tiny percentage of its total business.
And lastly, e-cigarettes really 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 on the utility of e-cigarettes in reducing the harms of tobacco use. The less attention paid towards the deadly US$800 billion arm of the business the higher.