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Are Big Tobacco Companies Really Taking Over Vaping & E-Cigarettes?

— December 23, 2019

Perhaps it’s time for watchdog and advocacy organizations to turn their campaigns on state legislators and representatives who can actually put real regulations in place.

While teen tobacco smoking rates have fallen below five percent nationwide in the last year, that progress has mostly been undercut by the nearly 80 percent rise in teen vaping between 2017 and 2018. According to a recent New York Times piece by marketing executive Alex Bogusky, this worrying estimate from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is not at all surprising. Rather, it’s indicative of Big Tobacco companies modernizing their marketing strategy to capture a new generation of nicotine consumers by buying into a rapidly developing vape market.

From a purely analytical perspective, it’s hard to argue with Bogusky’s assertion. In December, JUUL decided to accept a cash investment of over $12 billion from Altria, maker of Marlboro cigarettes and one of the largest tobacco companies in the world. This just about shredded JUUL’s anti-smoking credibility among e-cigarette and vape advocates, and was largely seen by critics as the embattled three-year-old startup selling out to big tobacco.

The History & Significance of the JUUL-Altria Deal

JUUL was founded in 2017 with a modest employee base of under 200 people. As a professed “health-conscious alternative” to cigarette smoking for adults, the company’s simple philosophy and attractive line of products launched the company to such popularity that it now controls three-quarters of the American vaping market. The JUUL-Altria deal secured a 35 percent stake in JUUL for the Big Tobacco giant in exchange for time and credibility with vape and e-cigarette regulators.

Today, JUUL’s partnership with Marlboro maker Altria is cited by critics as proof undeniable that JUUL has always been in the business of growth rather than the business of saving lives. The company’s so-called “deal with the devil” has not only been a continuing source of negative press, but alarming lawsuits as well. On Monday, a class-action lawsuit was filed against JUUL by a Sarasota family who claims their 15-year-old is now addicted to e-cigarettes. However, the company maintains that its ads are not targeted at any age group other than “grown adults.”

Has Big Tobacco in fact infiltrated the e-cigarette and vape juice market, and subverted them into new avenues for selling tobacco-extracted substances like nicotine? In this post, we take a brief look at concerns raised by anti-tobacco advocacy groups and test them against the facts.

Vapes and E-Cigarettes: Old, Dirty Tricks In New, Digitized Packaging?

Historically, government investigation into violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) has typically been aimed at Big Tobacco companies like Altria, Lorillard, R. J. Reynolds and Philip Morris. These investigations commonly revolve around the allegation that some of their advertising methods and strategies target children and young adults.

Young man in hoodie vaping; image by Nery Zarate, via
Young man in hoodie vaping; image by Nery Zarate, via

Disturbingly, similar charges are increasingly brought against e-cigarette and vape companies by watchdog and advocacy groups in recent years – since Altria bought a 35 percent stake in vaping giant JUUL; since Imperial Tobacco purchased the Blu E-Cigarette company and Reynolds American acquired Vuse Vapors. And many vaping companies, and health experts, say vaping is a great way to quit smoking cigarettes. Are we robbing Peter to pay Paul, two brothers with the same parent (company)?

Anti-smoking advocacy groups like Truth Initiative have been working to bring public attention to specific practices deemed suspicious among vape manufacturers. One example is the production of candy and bubblegum flavored e-liquids which, when paired with vaping’s hip messaging and rising popularity, could easily become attractive products for teens. Some of the aforementioned e-liquid products boast nicotine content levels exceeding or on par with an entire pack of cigarettes in a single serving.

Another suspect strategy is the application of JUUL or JUUL pod signage in doorways and corridors approximately five feet from the floor, or eye level with the average thirteen to fifteen year-olds. According to Truth Initiative, these are marketing practices mimicked straight out of Big Tobacco’s playbook.

Time and Regulation Will Tell

While critics’ concerns continue to swirl around rising teen vaping rates, the only meaningful solution at present is regulation and enforcement on both manufacturers and retailers. Vaping and e-cigarettes are an emerging phenomenon in the ongoing search for a solution to the smoking epidemic. It’s fair to want to ensure that vaping remains a responsible choice among adults, but it is likewise important not to discount the progress countless ex-smokers have been able to make thanks to the availability of vapes.

Perhaps it’s time for watchdog and advocacy organizations to turn their campaigns on state legislators and representatives who can actually put real regulations in place, rather than waging another protracted war of information against vape, e-cigarette and Big Tobacco companies.

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