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For a product barely anyone had been aware of 5 years ago, they now appear to be on everyone’s lips. While much has been written concerning the safety of these products and their potential to either support or ruin efforts to lessen smoking rates, it’s timely to consider why the worldwide tobacco industry has taken such a keen desire for buying e-cigarette companies.

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

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

All of the global tobacco companies have a stake inside the electronic cigarette market, with many buying up independent e-cigarette companies.

Philip Morris International, referred to as PMI, has taken it one step further: along with recently purchasing UK electronic cigarette company Nicocigs Ltd, it will likely be launching the e cig. Unlike e-cigs, which vapourise liquid nicotine, the HeatStick takes normal tobacco and heats it to 350 degrees Celsius to make a tobacco vapour.

PMI plans to introduce the Marlboro HeatStick in test markets in Japan and Italy later this year. Similar sorts of products were introduced in the 1990s, but failed dismally when smokers rejected both taste and absence of smoking satisfaction. PMI appears hopeful this latest generation of warmth technology could be more acceptable to smokers.

On the surface, it might look like the tobacco market is simply buying up these businesses before they become a major threat to the profits. Or even, it sees a bright future for e-cigarettes and wishes 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 may have.

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

Using celebrities, se.x, glamour, adventure, rebelliousness, youth and sweetness to market addictive products is very familiar territory for your tobacco industry. These sorts of campaigns contradict the tobacco industry’s pubic relations message that it is only considering selling e-cigarettes to adults who are unable to quit smoking.

Add to the 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 could promote the US$69 billion Marlboro brand by putting it on the HeatStick product.

E-cigarettes can 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 extra positive benefit of reducing smoking rates.

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

Since acquiring e-cigarette brands, not one tobacco company has stepped out of the way of tobacco control policy makers trying to reduce smoking. The market has not yet raised a white flag and agreed to will no longer oppose effective tobacco control policy reform.

It is business as usual: oppose, lobby and litigate when countries implement laws that impact on cigarette sales. Which is why the worldwide treaty to reduce 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” between the industry and public health means the industry is not a welcome stakeholder in formulating public health policy.

E-cigarettes certainly are a potentially useful tool in giving the tobacco industry a seat back on the policy table. If it can indicate e-cigarettes as “proof” it cares about consumers and it is trying to reduce tobacco harms, then perhaps it can not be shut from the regulatory process. No matter that e-cigarettes really are a tiny percentage of its total business.

And finally, e-cigarettes 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 within the utility of e-cigarettes in lessening the harms of tobacco use. The less attention paid for the deadly US$800 billion arm of the business the greater.

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