Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Changing World: All Three Major U.S. Tobacco Companies Have Now Entered the Electronic Cigarette Market

Reflecting massive changes in the U.S. tobacco space, all three major U.S. tobacco companies - Altria, Reynolds American, and Lorillard - have all entered the electronic cigarette market.

Lorillard had previously acquired Blu, but last week's announcement that R.J. Reynolds will introduce Vuse e-cigarettes in Colorado in July and this week's announcement that Altria will introduce MarkTen e-cigarettes in Indiana in August mean that all three companies will have entrants in the electronic cigarette market.

The Rest of the Story

There is now no question that the major cigarette companies are actively engaged in transforming the cigarette market, with a shift towards much less hazardous tobacco products. This shift has already resulted in a significant reduction in cigarette consumption, but the declines in smoking should grow as these alternative products begin to penetrate into brick-and-mortar retail stores, rather than just mall kiosks and the internet.

Ironically, the only groups which are opposing this transformation - which may result in a great reduction in cigarette-related morbidity and mortality - are the anti-smoking groups, which simply can't handle the fact that vaping looks like smoking and are not willing to actually examine the evidence that electronic cigarettes, in their seven years on the market, have not resulted in youth smoking initiation or even regular e-cigarette use among nonsmokers.

All three of the major tobacco companies are now officially in the business of harm reduction and are devoting a substantial amount of resources to promoting smoking cessation via the use of electronic cigarettes. On the other hand, anti-smoking groups are largely opposed to the use of electronic cigarettes and have called for their removal from the market. They, along with the FDA, are actively discouraging smokers from trying to quit using these products and are scaring smokers who have quit using electronic cigarettes into discontinuing the use of these devices and instead, returning to smoking.

In addition to being a strange but true ironic twist, I view this as being a major embarrassment for the anti-smoking movement.

Is it not unfortunate that we in tobacco control are the last to adopt the idea of harm reduction to help protect the health of millions of smokers who - let's face it - are not going to quit smoking? Is it not a disgrace that Big Tobacco is now promoting a form of smoking cessation that we in tobacco control are discouraging?

The entrance of the cigarette companies into the electronic cigarette market offers five distinct advantages that I believe in the long run will enhance the e-cigarette market:

1. The entrance of the tobacco companies into the electronic cigarette space now means that a substantial amount of resources - not previously available - can be devoted to marketing the product and making the public aware of electronic cigarettes, something which has previously been quite slow to develop. It is unfavorable for the e-cigarette industry that even six years after introduction of this product, consumers are still largely unaware of the very existence of the product. Even tobacco control experts remain confused about the differences between a cigarette and an electronic cigarette. Already, the entrance of the tobacco companies into the market has resulted in substantial publicity and media attention which is helping to educate the public about these products. 

2. The entrance of the tobacco companies into the electronic cigarette space now means that the industry has the resources to conduct the types of studies that may be required in order to obtain FDA approval for various important marketing claims that will ultimately be pivotal for the industry. While it is unclear whether the FDA will apply section 911 to electronic cigarettes (I have urged the agency not to do so), if it does there is no chance that any of the smaller electronic cigarette companies could possibly produce the research required to meet the heavy burdens of that statute. At least there is now a chance. Even if the FDA does not apply section 911 to electronic cigarettes, the entrance of tobacco companies into the market will help facilitate the conduct of important research into the safety and effectiveness of electronic cigarettes that can help inform the development of rational public policy regarding these products.

3. The entrance of the tobacco companies into the electronic cigarette space creates a formidable force that the FDA must now deal with and which has the resources to apply pressure to the agency to promote a reasonable approach to electronic cigarette regulation.

4. The entrance of the tobacco companies into the electronic cigarette space helps the entire industry by establishing an entity that can introduce the most stringent and appropriate quality control measures and help address concerns such as:

  • the presence of diethylene glycol in some cartridges;
  • unpredictable delivery of nicotine; 
  • inaccurate nicotine levels on cartridges;
  • exploding batteries;
  • leaky cartridges, etc.
Anti-smoking advocates will no longer be able to argue that we have no idea what electronic cigarettes are or what they contain or how or where they are made. In addition, the tobacco companies will be able to educate the FDA and provide the agency with ideas about specific aspects of the manufacturing process that could be incorporated into sensible regulations that would help set high standards for the entire industry.

5. Perhaps most importantly, the entrance of the tobacco companies into the electronic cigarette space may help transform the market by shifting it from an internet and mall kiosk business into a more traditional retail store operation. Already, the cigarette companies have developed arrangements with retail stores to carry their products. This could potentially lead to a more traditional market in which these products are available at brick-and-mortar stores, not just on the internet or at mall kiosks.

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