Personal Health

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.

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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 Vuse 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, GreenSmoke, 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.

“For years, federal regulations prohibiting tobacco companies from targeting young people have helped to protect a new generation of smokers from getting hooked on nicotine,” said Durbin. “Now, we must close this new gateway to addiction to protect our children.”

The lawmakers call for the industry, so far enjoying a regulatory free-for-all, to immediately stop selling their products to minors and to terminate marketing campaigns targeted at minors. They want the FDA to start regulating e-cigarettes by prohibiting sales to minors, require proof of age and face-to-face sales (something some states are already doing) and prohibit misleading product claims while requiring clear, uniform labels to tell consumers of the health risks associated with their use.

When it comes to health risks, the research data has been limited on the relatively new products. The first comprehensive peer-reviewed published research on e-cigarettes was just published May 12 in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation.

The study by University of California San Francisco scientists, found that e-cigarette users actually have much lower odds of quitting cigarettes and that while the data are still limited, e-cigarette emissions “are not merely ‘harmless water vapor,’ as is frequently claimed, and can be a source of indoor air pollution.”

"In terms of second-hand exposure, bystanders are exposed to aerosol vapor exhaled by the user, which can contain nicotine and toxins such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acetic acid and other toxins, though at lower levels compared to conventional cigarette emissions.”

While long-term biological effects of use are still unknown, the authors concluded that e-cigarettes should be prohibited wherever tobacco cigarettes are prohibited and should be subject to the same marketing restrictions as conventional cigarettes. 

Another study, featured in the New York Times May 3, found some e-cigarettes can produce carcinogens:

A study to be published this month in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research found that the high-power e-cigarettes known as tank systems produce formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, along with the nicotine-laced vapor that their users inhale. The toxin is formed when liquid nicotine and other e-cigarette ingredients are subjected to high temperatures, according to the study. A second study that is being prepared for submission to the same journal points to similar findings.

In the meantime, consumers are stuck in a veritable shootout between an unregulated industry and those campaigning for stricter controls. Corporate Accountability International took part in informing the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003, signed by 168 countries all agreeing to bans on tobacco advertising and sales to minors, restrictions on lobbying and clear the warnings on packaging.

With Big Tobacco still in its crosshairs, CAI blames the FDA’s inaction so far on the e-cigarette industry’s interference in health policymaking, “often backed by Big Tobacco’s lobbyists driving attempts to block, weaken, and delay meaningful regulation of e-cigarettes [using tactics] right out of the Big Tobacco playbook – litigation, lobbying, front groups and junk science,” according to a statement on CAI's website.

This has left it up to cities and states to pass their own stricter regulations prohibiting e-cigarette sales to minors and incorporating e-cigarettes into clean air laws and smoke-free areas. (Federal action will be required to restrict strategies such as celebrity sponsorships and flavorings, with one bill sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced in February.)

Meanwhile, Stewart is urging states to be wary of legislation now making the rounds. Promoted or supported by tobacco industry lobbyists in Ohio, Iowa, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Florida, and Rhode Island, Stewart said these bills would classify e-cigarettes separately from tobacco, “creating a clean, regulation-free slate for the industry." This could delay meaningful regulation indefinitely, he said.

The problem, he said, is the legislation is presented as “keep e-cigarettes away from children” bills, designed to be attractive to politicians and difficult to vote against, while secretly excluding e-cigarettes from tobacco regulations like taxes, marketing and smoke-free laws.

There have already been some victories on that front.

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee vetoed legislation last year that would have banned anyone under the age of 18 from using or purchasing electronic cigarettes.

As reported by the Providence Journal: “The American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, and other health advocacy groups, in calling on Chafee to strike down the measure, said it represented a "stalking horse" for tobacco and e-cigarette companies that want to exempt the growing industry from the regulations and taxes imposed on traditional tobacco-based products.”

Stewart pointed to other states being proactive, among them: New Jersey has banned the indoor consumption of e-cigarettes and recently announced plans to introduce a sin tax on them. And in Florida, the American Heart and Lung Associations recently pushed back hard on an attempt by a state legislator who receives industry support to preempt all local e-cigarette and tobacco legislation with state law.​