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Why Is Big Tobacco Taking Stock in E-Cigarettes?

It's the wild, wild west for the tobacco industry once again. ​

Photo Credit: Goodluz / Shutterstock


In April, the Food and Drug Administration proposed regulations that would extend its authority over traditional cigarettes to include, for the first time, electronic cigarettes as well as previously un-regulated pipe tobacco and cigars. The new regulations would affect the public, the tobacco industry and the nation’s roughly 42 million smokers.

Of particular concern to anti-smoking advocates is the booming popularity of e-cigarettes, battery-powered devices designed to mimic cigarettes while delivering nicotine-containing aerosol, or “vapor,” in varying doses and flavors. Proponents say e-cigs are without many of the health risks that come from smoking tobacco.

While the FDA’s proposal, which would ban sales of these products to all Americans under age 18, is certainly a step in the right direction, it’s hardly enough, according to John Stewart of Corporate Accountability International (CAI), a non-governmental agency and major player in the fight against the tobacco industry for two decades.

“It’s like the regulatory wild, wild west. There is no sheriff in town,” said Stewart, campaign director for Challenge Big Tobacco, in a phone interview from his Boston office on May 12.

There are no federal laws limiting marketing and sales of e-cigarettes to minors and there is a dearth of conclusive studies on their health effects (some have shown to have carcinogenic properties). But what is most alarming, said Stewart, is the way Big Tobacco is moving in on the e-cigarette market and launching its own products (e.g., Blu by Lorillard and Vu se by Reynolds American).

“Our number-one concern is that the e-cigarette industry, now backed by Big Tobacco, is shoring up its youth market and that can have devastating consequences for young people and addiction rates around the country,” he said.

Stewart, whose group helped retire the youth-targeted brand icons Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man in the U.S., points to the industry’s slick marketing campaigns that cast “vaping” as a smoking-alternative using images of freedom, health and glamour. (Examples can be found at Stanford University’s Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising.)

Blu celebrity endorsers Jenny McCarthy and Stephen Dorff profess such benefits as no offensive order and the ability for vapers to smoke anywhere. They make no mention of the addictive qualities of nicotine.

What’s worse, said Stewart, is that Big Tobacco is using its economic and political influence “to undermine regulations that would keep these things out of the hands of kids.”

Free from federal regulation and protection for consumers, e-cigarettes have fast become a multi-billion-dollar business by, as Stanford University put it, "resurrecting methods long... prohibited in the marketing of tobacco products."

The marketing is apparently working. According to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, e-cigarette use among U.S. high school students more than doubled from 2011 to 2012, with more than 76 percent of users admitting they also smoked traditional cigarettes. Additionally, one in five middle school students who reported using e-cigarettes had not tried conventional cigarettes.

While some experts say e-cigarettes can help tobacco smoking, others believe they can be a gateway drug to nicotine addiction and smoking. Among those concerned are Sen. Richard Durbin and 10 other Democratic lawmakers from the Senate and the House of Representatives who recently released the “first comprehensive investigation” of e-cigarette marketing tactics.

The report, “ Gateway to Addiction? A Survey of Popular Electronic Cigarette Manufacturers and Marketing to Youth,” compiled using responses from eight e-cigarette manufacturers (Njoy, Lorillard  Inc., Reynolds American Inc., Altria Group, Inc., LOGIC Technology, Eonsmoke, GreenSmo ke, and VMR Products) and other publicly available information, shows marketing expenditures have more than doubled between 2012 and 2013. Six leading e-cigarette companies have spent a total of $59.3 million on marketing alone.

They found extensive resources going toward social media, youth-oriented event sponsorship, and television and radio advertisements that reach substantial youth audiences, as well as candy flavors like cherry and bubblegum that appeal to kids.

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