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For a product rarely anyone had been aware of five years ago, they now seem to be on everyone’s lips. While much has been written regarding the safety of such products and their potential to either support or destroy efforts to reduce smoking rates, it’s timely to think about why the worldwide tobacco industry has taken such a keen interest in buying e-cigarette companies.

Despite e-cigarettes seemingly dominating public and academic debate on tobacco control, the worldwide e-cigarette marketplace is minuscule compared to traditional tobacco products. Euromonitor estimates the global e-cigarette market was worth US$3 billion in 2013.

Compare this towards the global tobacco market, one of the most valuable fast moving consumer goods industries, worth an estimated US$800 billion – greater than 260 times the size of the e-cigarette market. This highly profitable tobacco market, away from China, is dominated and controlled by simply five major players: Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco, British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International, and Altria/Philip Morris USA.

All the major global tobacco companies now have a stake within the e-cigarette market, with a lot of buying up independent e-cigarette companies.

Philip Morris International, called PMI, has taken it a step further: as well as recently purchasing UK e-cigarette company Nicocigs Ltd, it will be launching the ecigs. Unlike e-cigs, which vapourise liquid nicotine, the HeatStick takes normal tobacco and heats it to 350 degrees Celsius to create a tobacco vapour.

PMI intends to introduce the Marlboro HeatStick in test markets in Japan and Italy later this season. Similar kinds of products were introduced in the 1990s, but failed dismally when smokers rejected the taste and absence of smoking satisfaction. PMI appears hopeful this latest generation of heat technology may well be more acceptable to smokers.

On the surface, it may seem like the tobacco market is simply buying up these businesses before they be a major threat to its profits. Or perhaps, that it sees a bright future for e-cigarettes and wants to control the market.

But considering simply how much more profitable traditional cigarettes are than e-cigarettes, and the tobacco industry’s long and chequered corporate history, it’s vital that you question what other motivations they could have.

Tobacco advertising on television is almost universally banned, the tobacco-friendly states of Indonesia and Zimbabwe being two holdouts. It has been decades since a tobacco ad appeared on television screens in america and United Kingdom. But electronic cigarette marketing is actually a booming business both in countries with controversial television ad campaigns and celebrity endorsements.

Using celebrities, se.x, glamour, adventure, rebelliousness, youth and beauty to market addictive products is quite familiar territory for the tobacco industry. These kinds of campaigns contradict the tobacco industry’s pubic relations message that it must be only interested in selling e-cigarettes to adults who are not able to stop smoking.

Increase the simple fact that PMI can no longer show packs of Marlboro on store shelves or splash the iconic red Marlboro chevron on Formula One cars, it may promote the US$69 billion Marlboro brand by putting it on the HeatStick product.

E-cigarettes may also assist the tobacco industry undo the results of policies that have seen cigarettes pushed from social settings that kept people smoking. While smoking bans are principally about protecting people, especially workers, from secondhand smoke, they may have an additional positive advantage of reducing smoking rates.

Pushing to permit e-cigarette use within pubs and restaurants means there is not any must quit, because once you can’t smoke, just use an electronic cigarette instead. But, don’t forget to keep smoking the actual stuff when you can too.

Since acquiring e-cigarette brands, not one tobacco company has stepped taken care of of tobacco control policy makers attempting to reduce smoking. The business has not yet raised a white flag and decided to no more oppose effective tobacco control policy reform.

It is business as always: oppose, lobby and litigate when countries implement laws that influence on cigarette sales. Which is the reason the global treaty to lessen tobacco use, the planet Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, is explicit in banning tobacco industry influence in tobacco control policy. Choosing a “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict arzalp interest” involving the industry and public health means the business is not a welcome stakeholder in formulating public health policy.

E-cigarettes certainly are a potentially great tool in giving the tobacco industry a seat back on the policy table. If this can point to e-cigarettes as “proof” it cares about consumers and it is attempting to reduce tobacco harms, then maybe it can no longer be shut out of the regulatory process. No matter that e-cigarettes are a tiny portion of its total business.

And finally, e-cigarettes certainly are a huge distraction to tobacco control advocates and policy makers. No doubt the tobacco industry celebrates witnessing the debate and division among tobacco control colleagues over the utility of e-cigarettes in reducing the harms of tobacco use. The less attention paid towards the deadly US$800 billion arm of the business the better.

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