For a product rarely anyone had heard of five-years ago, they now appear to be on everyone’s lips. While much has been written about the safety of these products and their potential to either support or destroy efforts to lessen 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 international e-cigarette marketplace is minuscule when compared with traditional cigarettes and tobacco products. Euromonitor estimates that this global e-cigarette market was worth US$3 billion in 2013.
Compare this to the global tobacco market, one of the most valuable fast moving consumer goods industries, worth an estimated US$800 billion – a lot more than 260 times the dimensions of the electronic cigarette market. This highly profitable tobacco market, outside of China, is dominated and controlled by just 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 within the electronic cigarette market, with many buying up independent e-cigarette companies.
Philip Morris International, referred to as PMI, has taken it one step further: as well as recently purchasing UK electronic cigarette company Nicocigs Ltd, it will 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 produce a tobacco vapour.
PMI plans to introduce the Marlboro HeatStick in test markets in Japan and Italy later this season. Similar sorts of products were introduced inside the 1990s, but failed dismally when smokers rejected the taste and insufficient smoking satisfaction. PMI appears hopeful this latest generation of heat technology could be more acceptable to smokers.
On the surface, it might seem like the tobacco market is simply buying up these businesses before they be a major threat to the profits. Or perhaps, which it sees a bright future for e-cigarettes and wishes 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 the other motivations they could 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 United States and Great Britain. But electronic cigarette marketing is actually a booming business within both countries with controversial television ad campaigns and celebrity endorsements.
Using celebrities, se.x, glamour, adventure, rebelliousness, youth and beauty to promote addictive products is quite familiar territory for the tobacco industry. These kinds of campaigns contradict the tobacco industry’s pubic relations message that it is only thinking about selling e-cigarettes to adults who are not able to give up smoking.
Enhance the 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 US$69 billion Marlboro brand by putting it on the HeatStick product.
E-cigarettes could also help the tobacco industry undo the effects 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 have got an extra positive advantage of reducing smoking rates.
Pushing to enable electronic cigarette use within pubs and restaurants means there is absolutely no must quit, because whenever you can’t smoke, just use an electronic cigarette instead. But, don’t forget to help keep smoking the actual stuff when you are able too.
Since acquiring e-cigarette brands, not one tobacco company has stepped taken care of of tobacco control policy makers working to reduce smoking. The market has not raised a white flag and decided to no longer oppose effective tobacco control policy reform.
It is business as always: oppose, lobby and litigate when countries implement laws that effect on cigarette sales. Which is the reason the international 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” between the industry and public health means the industry is not really a welcome stakeholder in formulating public health policy.
E-cigarettes really are a potentially great tool in giving the tobacco industry a seat back in the policy table. If it can point to e-cigarettes as “proof” it cares about consumers and is working to reduce tobacco harms, then maybe it can no longer be shut out of the regulatory process. No matter that e-cigarettes certainly are a tiny part of its total business.
And finally, e-cigarettes certainly 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 on 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 better.