If you’ve stopped into a corner store or gas station recently, you may have noticed that there on the shelves, alongside the familiar red-and-white packs of Marlboros, the yellow Camels, the turquoise Newports, are futuristic-looking boxes of electronic cigarettes. These small, battery-powered devices heat a nicotine-containing liquid, producing an inhalable vapor that provides smokers with the nicotine buzz they crave. Because they do not produce the tar, arsenic and other carcinogens that come from burning tobacco, they have been heralded as a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes, and even as a smoking cessation method.
But it turns out the two kinds of cigarettes aren’t so different from each other at all—particularly when it comes to who is selling them.
Over the last year, Big Tobacco has made major inroads into the $3 billion e-cigarette market with major companies like Altria and Reynolds American releasing their own e-cig brands. At the same time, they have taken on an unlikely role as champions for public health. Industry leaders have been lobbying hard for any negative health effects of e-cigarettes to be publicized and for people to switch over to this purportedly less-harmful smoking alternative. This week, the CEOs of Reynolds and Lorillard, two of the country’s largest tobacco companies, urged the FDA to move faster to regulate the burgeoning industry, citing concerns that e-cig users were relying on cheap, low-quality products purchased online and imported from China.
That's right: the leaders of an industry that sells a product that kills some 480,000 Americans every year are now in a panic to warn consumers about the health risks of smoking. It is a remarkable about-face. So what’s in it for them?
A recent New York Times article helped shed some light on their motives. In what they claim is a grand gesture of corporate responsibility, major tobacco companies are slapping their e-cigarette packages with lengthy health warnings that are much stronger than anything found on their other tobacco products. One such warning, from Altria, maker of Marlboros and MarkTen electronic cigarettes, runs more than 100 words and reads in part: “Nicotine is addictive and habit-forming, and is very toxic by inhalation, in contact with the skin, or if swallowed.” The warnings advise the dangers of smoking for children, women who are pregnant, those who take medications for depression or asthma, or who have high blood pressure or diabetes. They explicitly say that e-cigarettes are not a means of quitting smoking. It seems, then, that Big Tobacco is trying to play the e-cig game both ways. They want to capitalize on this growing market by pushing for stringent FDA regulations that would drive their smaller competitors out of business, but they also want to avoid cutting too deeply into their profits from traditional cigarettes by telling people there is no real benefit to going electronic.
Because they are so new, there has been no long-term, conclusive research on the health effects of electronic cigarettes. Some studies have found that e-cigs can help people quit; others say the exact opposite. Many individual e-cigarette users have come forward with success stories about using the product to quit traditional cigarettes, but all of this evidence is anecdotal. More worryingly, researchers at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York found that some e-cigs contain low levels of carcinogens. According to Allan M. Brandt, a Harvard professor of the history of medicine who is quoted in the Times piece, these warning labels fit into a long tobacco industry tradition of misleading consumers. “It’s an incredibly effective and duplicitous practice in inventing additional new uncertainties and, at the same time, appearing to be cooperative.”
What makes these warning labels so striking is that Big Tobacco spent decades fighting against stricter regulations and public health advertising. Though the harmful health effects of smoking have been known since the 1950s, only two decades ago, in 1994, the CEOs of the seven largest American tobacco companies testified before Congress that they didn’t believe cigarettes were addictive or caused cancer. In 1998, four of these companies finally gave up the charade, agreeing to pay more than $200 billion to settle lawsuits filed by 46 attorneys-general over Medicaid costs used to treat smoking-related illnesses. Tobacco companies have proven equally reluctant to divulge health information in more recent years, successfully defeating a 2009 law to require larger, graphic warnings on cigarette packaging. But now, an industry that’s never cared much about the health of its consumers is falling over itself to warn people about the dangers of smoking.
History is not the only reason to be cynical about Big Tobacco’s motives. As the Times piece points out, these strong warning labels are a relatively risk-free way for the companies to conjure up some positive PR without actually stopping people from smoking. The reason? No one actually reads them. A 2007 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study cited in the Wall Street Journal found that smokers are particularly unlikely to read warning labels, and a report from the same year by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids says that their effectiveness has steadily declined since they were first mandated in 1984, to the point that they are “virtually meaningless.” In Canada and Europe, cigarette packs are papered with gory images of blackened lungs and rotten teeth, but in America, all we have is a few lines of easily ignored text.
Tobacco companies are also spending phenomenal sums to advertise these oh-so-deadly products as they aggressively move into the e-cigarette market. Because e-cigs are relatively new and not yet subject to federal regulation, Big Tobacco is free to market them in ways that have long been prohibited in the marketing of traditional cigarettes. They can also sell flavorings and use bright, colorful packaging as a means to attract younger customers (there are currently no federal laws limiting sales of e-cigarettes to minors). As Businessweek put it in a recent article, “For tobacco companies that have been barred from the airwaves for years, e-cigarettes are a way back in.”
This year alone, Altria and Reynolds are each spending more than $150 million promoting their MarkTen and Vuse e-cigarettes. Basically, Big Tobacco is dropping major bucks to attract a new generation of smokers and lure customers away from smaller competitors, all while burnishing their corporate reputations. This fusion of cynical marketing ploy and cheap PR gambit would be impressive if it wasn’t so transparent.