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 regarding the safety of such products and their potential to either support or sabotage efforts to minimize smoking rates, it’s timely to consider why the worldwide 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 global e-cigarette market is minuscule in comparison to traditional tobacco products. Euromonitor estimates the global e-cigarette market was worth US$3 billion in 2013.
Compare this for the global tobacco market, probably the most valuable fast moving consumer goods industries, worth an estimated US$800 billion – greater than 260 times how big the e-cigarette market. This highly profitable tobacco market, away from 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.
Virtually all of the global tobacco companies have a stake in the e-cigarette market, with a lot of buying up independent electronic cigarette companies.
Philip Morris International, known as PMI, has brought it one step further: as well as recently purchasing UK e-cigarette company Nicocigs Ltd, it will likely 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 create a tobacco vapour.
PMI intends to introduce the Marlboro HeatStick in test markets in Japan and Italy later this coming year. Similar kinds of products were introduced within the 1990s, but failed dismally when smokers rejected the taste and absence of smoking satisfaction. PMI appears hopeful this latest generation of warmth technology will be more acceptable to smokers.
On the surface, it might appear to be the tobacco industry is simply buying up these businesses before they become a major threat to its profits. Or even, it sees a bright future for e-cigarettes and wants to control the market.
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 essential to question how many 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 Uk. But e-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 sweetness to market addictive products is quite familiar territory for that tobacco industry. These sorts of campaigns contradict the tobacco industry’s pubic relations message that it is only interested in selling e-cigarettes to adults who are unable to quit smoking.
Add to 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 may promote the US$69 billion Marlboro brand by putting it on the HeatStick product.
E-cigarettes could also assist the tobacco industry undo the effects of policies which 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 may have yet another positive advantage of reducing smoking rates.
Pushing to enable electronic cigarette utilization in pubs and restaurants means there is absolutely no need 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 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 consented to will no longer oppose effective tobacco control policy reform.
It really is business as always: oppose, lobby and litigate when countries implement laws that impact on cigarette sales. Which is the reason the international 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. Choosing a “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict arzalp interest” in between the industry and public health means the market 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 at the policy table. If it can indicate e-cigarettes as “proof” it cares about consumers and is also attempting to reduce tobacco harms, then maybe it will not be shut out of the regulatory process. Regardless of that e-cigarettes certainly are a tiny part of its total business.
Lastly, e-cigarettes really are a huge distraction to tobacco control advocates and policy makers. Without 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 towards the deadly US$800 billion arm in the business the better.