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 concerning the safety of these products and their potential to either support or sabotage efforts to reduce smoking rates, it’s timely to think about why the global tobacco industry has taken such a keen interest in buying electronic cigarette companies.
Despite e-cigarettes seemingly dominating public and academic debate on tobacco control, the worldwide electronic cigarette market is minuscule when compared with traditional cigarettes and tobacco products. Euromonitor estimates that the global e-cigarette market was worth US$3 billion in 2013.
Compare this for the global tobacco market, one of the most valuable fast moving consumer goods industries, worth an estimated US$800 billion – greater than 260 times how big the electronic cigarette market. This highly profitable tobacco market, outside 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.
All the major global tobacco companies will have a stake in the electronic cigarette market, with a lot of buying up independent electronic cigarette companies.
Philip Morris International, called PMI, has taken it a step further: in addition to recently purchasing UK e-cigarette company Nicocigs Ltd, it will likely be launching the best rated e cig. 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 in the 1990s, but failed dismally when smokers rejected both taste and lack of smoking satisfaction. PMI appears hopeful this latest generation of warmth technology could be more acceptable to smokers.
On the surface, it might look like the tobacco market is simply buying up these businesses before they turn into a major threat to its profits. Or even, it sees a bright future for e-cigarettes and wishes to control the marketplace.
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 vital that you question how many other motivations they may have.
Tobacco advertising on tv is nearly universally banned, the tobacco-friendly states of Indonesia and Zimbabwe being two holdouts. It really 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 in both countries with controversial television ad campaigns and celebrity endorsements.
Using celebrities, se.x, glamour, adventure, rebelliousness, youth and beauty to market addictive products is very familiar territory for that tobacco industry. These kinds of campaigns contradict the tobacco industry’s pubic relations message that it must be only thinking about selling e-cigarettes to adults who are not able to quit smoking.
Enhance the 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 can also help the tobacco industry undo the consequences of policies which 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 yet another positive benefit of reducing smoking rates.
Pushing to allow e-cigarette use within pubs and restaurants means there is no must quit, because whenever you can’t smoke, simply employ an e-cigarette instead. But, don’t forget to maintain smoking the real stuff when you are able too.
Since acquiring electronic cigarette brands, not one tobacco company has stepped out of the way of tobacco control policy makers attempting to reduce smoking. The business has not raised a white flag and agreed to will no longer oppose effective tobacco control policy reform.
It is business as usual: oppose, lobby and litigate when countries implement laws that effect on cigarette sales. Which explains why the worldwide treaty to lessen tobacco use, the planet 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” 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 great tool in giving the tobacco industry a seat back on the policy table. If this can point to e-cigarettes as “proof” it cares about consumers and it is trying to reduce tobacco harms, then maybe it can no longer be shut out of the regulatory process. Irrespective of that e-cigarettes certainly are a tiny portion of its total business.
Lastly, e-cigarettes really are a huge distraction to tobacco control advocates and policy makers. No doubt the tobacco industry celebrates witnessing the debate and division among tobacco control colleagues over the utility of e-cigarettes in lessening the harms of tobacco use. The less attention paid to the deadly US$800 billion arm from the business the greater.