If you’ve heard it before, then you know that the story of the modern e-cigarette’s birth is both tragic and poetic. Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik invented the first nicotine vaporizing device in 2003, motivated by his passion to reduce the death and disease caused by tobacco.
Unfortunately, Lik was too late to save his father, who died of lung cancer, but the world quickly recognized potential of his creation. Since then, the technology has evolved and diversified into the booming, eight billion dollar industry we see today.
Ecigarettes: Transforming the Tobacco Landscape
When e-cigarettes first hit the US market in 2007, they revolutionized the way people thought about tobacco and harm reduction. As they grew in popularity and more and more producers entered the market, advanced, refillable, second-generation vaping devices emerged that would forever change society’s relationship with nicotine and tobacco.
Even though e-cigarettes have “cigarette” in the name, they are nothing like the tobacco-filled, combustible cigarettes that contribute to 480,000 deaths a year in the US. For the first time in, well, ever, smokers got a glimpse of what a realistic smoke-free world could look like in the form of a brand new smokeless alternative.
Many health workers saw it as a new tool for tobacco harm reduction. John Britton, director of the UK Center for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies at the University of Nottingham famously called e-cigarettes “the first genuinely new way of helping people stop smoking that has come along in decades.”
2014 was a turning point; governments began introducing major laws and regulations on e-cigarettes even as the vapor market saw an explosion of innovation and technological advancement. Since then the vapor industry has continued to thrive, but with the threat of devastating taxes and restrictions looming overhead.
Big Tobacco’s Biggest Threat
The CurbIt anti-vaping campaign called e-cigarettes “just the latest gimmick from Big Tobacco to hook a new generation on their products. The majority of e-cigarette brands are owned by tobacco companies.”
Ant-vaping rhetoric, like the quote above, would have you thinking that the vapor industry and Big Tobacco are one and the same. But that claim is misleading at best; nearly all e-cigarette manufacturers are small, independent businesses with no ties to the tobacco industry at all.
A 2014 study identified 466 separate e-cigarette and e-liquid brands, and only 10 were owned by the big tobacco companies. While the big tobacco companies have dabbled in the e-cigarette market, they haven’t invested enough to be anything more than minor players in the industry.
This is partly because they were late to the game. In 2012, Lorillard purchased Blu from an independent producer, becoming the first tobacco company to buy out an e-cigarette. This was nearly five years after e-cigarettes were first available in the US.
But the biggest reason Big Tobacco’s hasn’t had so little success in the e-cigarette market is that they simply have little interest in the future of vaping. E-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco at all and are preferred by consumers for their refillable and DIY-characteristics—the very traits that make them unappealing to the tobacco industry.
That’s because their “core business,” as British American Tobacco’s Director of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs said, “is, and will remain in, tobacco.” The fact is, cigarettes are still hugely profitable, and tobacco companies are too reliant on tobacco sales to care too much about e-cigarettes.
As business writer Susan Adams says in Forbes, “Big Tobacco brands have light-years to travel before their e-cigs make anywhere near the money combustibles do.”
The Vapor Industry vs. Big Tobacco & The Anti-Vape Lobby
Vaping has exploded in popularity and the vapor industry has kept up, coming out with more and more innovative devices and new flavors to meet the booming demand. The e-cigarette market has grown so large, in fact, that it is becoming more and more of a threat to Big Tobacco.
That’s why many of the big tobacco companies have been major supporters of strict e-cigarette laws and regulations that discourage vaping. According to the national review, “Cigarette companies are spending millions of dollars to push product bans, higher taxes, and expensive regulations on their competitors.”
In fact, it’s widely known that Big Tobacco lobbyists played a big part in supporting the FDA’s recent e-cigarette regulations in an attempt to deal a fatal blow to small e-cigarette manufacturers and retailers.
After all, it’s no secret that only the big tobacco companies are likely to be able to afford the FDA’s tough approval process. Cigarettes, by the way, are essentially exempt from that same FDA approval process.
The FDA itself evens admits that the vast majority of vapor product manufacturers will be unable to comply, predicting that 99% of products will be banned by default when their manufacturers can’t afford the approval process. It’s safe to say that the only surviving e-cigarettes will be the ones bankrolled by the big tobacco companies.
This would be a terrible turn of events, considering that tobacco companies produce some of the lowest-quality and least-effective e-cigarettes on the market. And, unlike many of the small vapor businesses–built by former smokers with a desire to change others’ lives for the better—Big Tobacco’s profit margins rely on steering smokers away from vaping so they will continue to purchase their much more profitabe tobacco products.
As rates of tobacco and cigarette use in the US continue to fall, some vaping proponents think that e-cigarettes could be the beginning of a smoke-free world.
“The emergence of e-cigarettes has generated a massive opportunity for a consumer as well as a health care-led revolution in the way that nicotine is used in society,” said the Royal College of Physicians’ report on e-cigarettes, “so the vision of a society that is free from tobacco smoking, and the harm that smoking causes, becomes more realistic.”
Is a smoke-free America truly possible? Only time will tell, and it will depend heavily on the attitudes of lawmakers and public health officials.
The number of people in the US who think vaping is more dangerous than smoking is increasing, thanks to misleading propaganda like the Surgeon General’s report on e-cigarettes. E-cigarette market growth slowed for the first time in 2016, and the FDA’s grim deadline for vapor product approval draws ever more near.
The tobacco companies know that every e-cigarette restriction and public campaign that makes people wary of e-cigarettes increases the chance that smokers will stay smokers. “If the dominant message is one of doubt, then the status quo gets maintained,” as one director at the Vitality Institute, Derek Yach, said.
Unfortunately, the anti-tobacco activists are too blinded by ideology to realize that they are helping the tobacco companies win the war over public health.
But there is light on the horizon, as a large pro-vaping lobby made up of politicians, health workers, and consumer activists has emerged to take on both the tobacco companies and anti-tobacco lobby.
If vaping could have such an impact on the tobacco industry, in just a decade, imagine how the world could be in another decade or two with the support of the health and harm reduction community. Smoking affects everyone, and if vaping has the potential to disrupt and replace the tobacco industry, everyone would be better off.
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