Big Tobacco Goes High-Tech To Convince You That Smoking Is Cool Again

CREDIT: Shutterstock

As a growing number of Americans are turning away from smoking, the nation’s largest tobacco companies are ramping up production of high-tech cigarettes that could lead an entirely new generation of Americans to become addicted smokers — and the government is doing nothing to stop them.

Next month, R.J. Reynolds, the second-largest tobacco manufacturer and maker of Camel, Salem and Winston, will start selling Vuse — an electronic cigarette the size of a slick, thin pen. The product is packaged like the latest release from Apple, surrounded by clear plastic and a crisp logo, set against a clean black background. It even comes with a USB charger. When a user inhales, a sensor heats the liquid nicotine solution, emitting an odorless vapor.

“It’s a high-tech product, there are in fact micro chips inside the cartridges that communicates with the processor inside the power unit, so it’s a sophisticated piece of technology,” spokesperson Richard Smith said. “The package design is to compliment the technical forward facing digital nature of this product, same with the design of the product itself.” July’s campaign is “just the first of a major national roll out” that will include the full range of marketing support and advertising, including T.V. commercials.

Electronic cigarettes or e-cigarettes have been on the market for several years, raking in just a fraction of the tobacco market, $500 million in 2012. But the recent decision by all three big tobacco companies to develop e-cigarette lines has analysts anticipating up to $1 billion in sales this year, with the possibility that the next generation of smokes could even “surpass consumption of traditional cigarettes in the next decade.” Altria Group, the owner of Philip Morris USA — the largest tobacco company in the country with brands like Marlboro, Virginia Slims, and Parliament — unveiled a new e-cigarette on Tuesday. And Lorillard, the third largest manufacturer of cigarettes in the United States, with brands like Newport and Kent, acquired the e-cigarette company blu in April 2012.

“E-cigarettes are to tobacco what energy drinks were or are to beverages,” Bonnie Herzog, an analyst at Wells Fargo Securities who follows the tobacco industry, told the New York Times last year. “It is a small category that is growing very fast, embraced by retailers and consumers.” Indeed, in 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that “more than 20 percent of adult smokers said they had tried e-cigarettes, double the rate in 2010.”

Phillip Morris and R.J. Reynolds pushed back against claims by health groups that e-cigarettes are designed to appeal to young nonsmokers, insisting that their products are for “consumers looking for alternatives to traditional cigarettes” and are not meant to target those who have quit or haven’t started. “It’s a guiding principle of Reynolds operating companies, including JRVapor, that adults who do not smoke should not start and those who quit should not re-start,” Smith said. “Kids should never have access to tobacco products.”

Tobacco companies have long argued that they are only competing among existing adult smokers, when in reality their products and marketing appealed to children. In the 1990s, R.J. Reynolds claimed that it developed the infamous Joe Camel character in 1988 to lure adult customers from their competitors, even though studies repeatedly indicated that the “character was widely recognized by and popular among children.” The Federal Trade Commission ultimately concluded that Joe Camel attracted underage smokers, noting that teen smoking spiked after he entered the marketplace. The company discontinued use of the character in 1997.

Consumer advocates now fear that tobacco companies are using the same playbook to market e-cigarettes, and are urging the federal government to step in and provide additional regulation. The products are not covered by “the longtime restrictions on using commercials to sell tobacco cigarettes” or overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In 2009, the FDA classified electronic cigarettes as drug delivery devices, subject to pre-approval. But the industry took the government to court, insisting that they should be regulated as tobacco products. The manufactures won the case, forcing the FDA to drop its ban on importation of electronic cigarettes from China, and quickly moved to market without any federal oversight whatsoever. In January, the FDA announced that it would issue a proposed rule to regulate “additional categories of tobacco products” in April, but as the large tobacco companies have started moving into the marketplace, the agency has yet to publish any guidelines.

“Right now it’s the wild, wild west and we have an industry that has a history of marketing to youth and claim they don’t,” Matthew Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said, “making implicit and explicit claims about their products that often prove to be false.”

The Campaign and other health groups are demanding that the FDA explain what’s in these products, ensure that the levels of nicotine and the presence of other substances that make them more dangerous are carefully regulated, and prohibit aggressive advertising to children and misleading health statements.

“There has been very limited independent evidence done to find out what the ultimate consequences are either to the individual user, but also to the public health consequences,” Erika Sward, the American Lung Association’s Director of National Advocacy, explained. In 2009, the FDA released an analysis of 18 electronic cigarettes and found that half of the vapor samples “contained carcinogens, and that one contained diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used in antifreeze.” The agency concluded that “consumers of e-cigarette products currently have no way of knowing whether e-cigarettes are safe for their intended use, how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use, or if there are any benefits associated with using these products.” The Canadian health ministry also issued an advisory against electronic cigarettes, warning that the products “may pose risks such as nicotine poisoning and addiction.”

Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds conceded that “there is no safe tobacco product,” but insisted that the e-cigarettes rely on “the highest quality ingredients under strict manufacturing standards.” Neither company would discuss how they plan to advertise the smokes, although several other brands are already running ads deeply reminiscent of traditional tobacco commercials, relying on actors and celebrities to sell their products. The R.J. Reynolds spokesperson told ThinkProgress that the company’s advertisements would be similar in nature. A report from Citibank finds that spending on e-cigarette TV ads increased 17.9 percent from 2011 to 2012, while print ad spending rose 71.9 percent.

“The highly stylized TV advertising we’re now seeing reintroduces smoking in a very glamourous way on our nation’s airwaves,” Myers warned. “The electronic cigarette industry has used the lack of consumer regulation to aggressively market their product.”

“We have done and failed at the experiment of this country of having tobacco products being on the market until they are proven to be dangerous. We’ve seen the consequences of that,” Sward said, adding that the future of e-cigarettes “is going to depend on what FDA ultimately does.”