“E-cigarettes are just the latest gimmick from Big Tobacco to hook a new generation on their products. The majority of e-cigarette brands are owned by tobacco companies.”
You might be hoping that this is a joke – a scathing piece of satire of anti-vaping arguments – but you’d be sadly mistaken. This is a direct quote from the CurbIt anti-vaping campaign from the San Francisco Tobacco Free Project, which – if you were lucky enough to miss it – you can think of as a ham-fisted test run for Still Blowing Smoke.
Still Blowing Smoke picked up the narrative too, opening their “Big Tobacco” section with: “With cigarette smoking rates dropping, it’s no surprise that Big Tobacco would be all over e-cigarettes. And they are, in a big way. Read on to find out why history can’t be allowed to repeat itself.”
It seems there’s a lot of interest in painting e-cigarettes as a dastardly ploy by Big Tobacco to continue profiting from nicotine addiction, but is it really the case? Let’s take a look at the myths of the anti-vaping narrative in contrast to the reality of the story of Big Tobacco and e-cigarettes.
The Anti-Vaping Myth of Big Tobacco and E-Cigarettes
“The Latest Gimmick from Big Tobacco”
The CurbIt campaign might not have explicitly claimed that e-cigarettes were a Big Tobacco invention, but statements about e-cigarettes like “sold by the tobacco industry” and “San Francisco isn’t fooled by e-cigarettes, Big Tobacco” clearly give that impression. The “latest gimmick” comment is the most blatant, but the reader is left to infer the rest.
Still Blowing Smoke gets the intended message across so well it’s almost admirable, “Every single Big Tobacco company owns at least one e-cigarette brand.”
“A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”
The supposedly central role of Big Tobacco in the e-cig industry ties in perfectly with the related idea that e-cigarettes are “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” In an article under that name for the Central European Journal of Medicine, researcher Manfred Neuberger wrote: “There is a simple rule for tobacco control: distrust any idea by ‘Big Tobacco,’ including tobacco/nicotine traders and bought allies.”
He went on to call e-cigarettes a “new weapon” of the tobacco industry. He, and many others sharing his concerns, draw on examples of “low tar” or “light” cigarettes as examples of supposedly “safer” products that turned out to be just as bad as regular cigarettes.
Still Blowing Smoke drives home the deceptive tactics of tobacco companies by quoting the ex-chief executive of Lorillard, who said (under oath, they’re keen to add) “I believe that nicotine is not addictive.”
Tobacco companies lie, the argument goes, and e-cigarettes are just the latest lie.
History Repeating Itself
E-Cigarettes, cast as a dastardly ploy by the proven liars Big Tobacco, really do start to look like “history repeating itself.” At this point, many will point out the rise in vaping among teens, the widespread availability of sweet flavors that sound like they’re intended for children and the apparent lack of regulation on e-cigarettes. It seems like a disaster waiting to happen.
The Reality of Big Tobacco and the E-Cigarette Industry
This narrative all lashes together to create a misleading picture of Big Tobacco’s role in the e-cigarette industry. It’s true that tobacco companies are buying up e-cigarette companies, but the missing points are how long it took them, and how poor a job they’re doing.
They Were Late to Enter the Market, Not Its Creators
Lorillard was the first tobacco company to make moves on the e-cigarette industry, buying Blu in 2012 and UK-based SkyCig the following year. However, modern e-cigarettes were actually invented in 2003 (putting aside the 60s version that never took off), and started to really gain popularity towards the end of the decade.
This is a key point: by the time Big Tobacco made moves on the e-cigarette industry, it had been growing for years. Creators of the e-cigarette they definitely aren’t. Originally, they’d dismissed it as a fad, but rising sales made them rethink that conclusion, with the memory of Kodak’s demise – the film giant crushed by the rise in digital photography – fresh in their minds.
They Aren’t “All Over Vaping” “in a Big Way”
The real history of Big Tobacco and e-cigarettes shows that this late limping into the market continued with the other major companies. The idea they’re “all over vaping” is an exaggeration.
British American Tobacco entered the scene after Lorillard, acquiring Intellicig and creating Vype. Imperial Tobacco produced Puritane with Hon Lik and developed Jai for the French and Italian markets (as well as purchasing Blu in 2014). RJ Reynolds, Japan Tobacco International, Philip Morris International and Altria have all also gotten their own players on the field, with acquisitions and development giving them Vuse, E-Lites, Nicocigs, Green Smoke and MarkTen.
So the claims of all major tobacco companies having a stake in the e-cigarette industry are ultimately true, but over-state the case quite a lot. They have a handful of products. With combined profits exceeding those of Coca-Cola, Microsoft and McDonald’s put together, if they were really “all over” e-cigarettes the landscape would be very, very different. Estimates suggest that vaping will become a $3.5 billion (£2.2 billion) industry this year, which is about 10 times less than tobacco industry’s annual profits. If Big Tobacco wanted to, they could buy out the whole industry.
They All Sell Cigalikes…
Vapers will immediately notice that the vast majority of the devices tobacco companies sell are cigalikes. There are some exceptions – Jai has an eGo-like device, the Vype ePen is like an eGo but uses cartridges, and Blu offers the eGo-style Pro Kit – but the remainder of the products available are firmly cigalikes.
… But Vapers Aren’t Interested
The problem is that vapers are moving away from cigalikes. ASH UK’s survey on e-cigarette use in Britain found that out of all adults who’ve tried vaping, around 66 percent use a rechargeable model with a tank, and although around 65 percent still start by using a cigalike (either disposable or rechargeable), this number shrank from 2014 to 2015. For ex-smokers (smokers who’ve quit by vaping) the data shows that 76 percent use refillable devices.
Other studies show that vapers switch from cigalikes to refillable devices, but very rarely do the opposite. In line with this, a Wells Fargo analysis showed that mods and refillable products overtook cigalikes in terms of market share in 2014.
In the vaping community, the move towards refillable devices and mods (particularly variable voltage/variable wattage devices) has been underway for a long time. A 2014 study of dedicated vapers found that fewer than 4 percent used cigalikes. The reason is simple: later-generation devices are better than cigalikes. They may still take a substantial portion of sales – due to their widespread availability in supermarkets and petrol stations – but you’d be hard pushed to find many converted vapers puffing on a Big Tobacco e-cigarette.
Incidentally, this move away from cigalikes is why RJ Reynolds is trying to crush non-cigalike (“open system”) devices by lobbying regulators. We won’t vape their products, so they want to take ours away.
Big Tobacco is a Firm Minority in the Industry
In January 2014, researchers counted 466 brands of e-cigarette, but just 10 are currently sold by Big Tobacco. Even using this massively out of date figure for the number of e-cig brands, that would mean Big Tobacco-owned brands of e-cigarette make up just over 2 percent of all the e-cigarette brands on the market. If you take out the impact of retail distribution channels and the fact they have heaps of money to spend on advertising, they’re just a drop in the ocean.
The Impact of the Myth: The Well Has Been Poisoned
Contrary to the claims of CurbIt and Still Blowing Smoke, Big Tobacco companies are relatively small players in the industry, primarily getting their business from smokers first trying an e-cig who are content with picking one up from their local shop.
In contrast with independent e-cigarette companies, they’re almost laughably behind the times: as mod-makers start adding temperature control and pushing the power beyond 100 W, Big Tobacco is still promoting cigalikes, reluctantly inching towards the more popular eGo-style devices and working on products that heat tobacco. So, why would many people have you believe that they’re the architects of the industry?
The reason is simple: it’s an effective way to poison the well. By associating the e-cigarette industry with Big Tobacco as much as possible, it “taints” the claims made by “the e-cigarette industry” (or if you’re really into pushing the association, “Big Vaping”), particularly when it comes to the relative safety of vaping.
For almost all vapers, Big Tobacco is an unwelcome but ultimately irrelevant minor presence in the industry. For opponents of vaping, the more they’re involved, the easier it is to convince people that e-cigarettes really are a wolf in sheep’s clothing.