Tobacco and pharmaceutical companies have as much right as every other independent business to own vaping brands and sell vaping products. However, they have no right to expect this to be free of the competition that their current business models sustain. We must therefore be very cautious about how this vaping ownership is being used by Tobacco businesses in particular. The more vaping ownership they control, the more influence they believe they create not only in the commercial space, but a justification to be able to speak and direct on behalf of the vaping industry and its customers. This is very dangerous. We must follow their actions and not their words to see the intentions, and the actions show clearly the tobacco industry has no intention of voluntarily transforming old habits of absolute dominance and protection of its tobacco market. Ownership of vaping businesses is currently (and likely for the far foreseeable future) to be very marginal in the overall commercial viability of these companies, but it has become essential that every tobacco company owns and operates vaping businesses. This allows them illegitimate influence on a sector’s future, and that influence can only be in direct conflict with the best interests of vapers and smokers across the globe.
Since the introduction of e-cigarettes around 10 years ago, the tobacco cigarette market in well-developed countries has been in steady decline. In the UK as many as 1.5 million smokers no longer smoke as a consequence of vaping’s success and a further 1.4 million dual users are using fewer cigarettes than before they commenced vaping. This decline is mirrored across Europe and the USA, with varying degrees of penetration. Literally hundreds of billions of cigarettes are no longer being smoked each year as a consequence of vaping’s success. That said, vaping has still only generated limited penetration. This limited success is in large part due to the misleading media campaigns and successful political lobbying that have resulted in damaging regulation across the globe and confusion amongst smokers. It is no surprise that we see such committed attempts to undermine the independent vaping sector. Indeed, no surprise that in the USA, where commercially led lobbying is at the heart of government, that we have seen the most punitive vaping regulation that will destroy the independent vaping sector and hand back to the multinational tobacco business the sector that was being each day prised from its greasy grasp. No clearer example is there of tobacco’s money getting its way. A business that deserves no support is being supported by democratically elected politicians who should shoulder the needs and health of the population, not the greed of the tobacco industry.
Big tobacco’s misplaced harm reduction agenda
Whilst tobacco businesses talk of a ‘harm reduction’ agenda, we should take these words with a pinch of salt. For as long as they continue to produce and sell tobacco products, we must follow their actions not their words to understand the true agenda. ‘Tobacco Harm Reduction’ is only in their vocabulary because they are being forced to adjust rhetoric and products as their markets decline, and as regulation and vaping’s success undermine at an unprecedented pace the market for combustible tobacco. The ‘heat not burn’ products such as the Phillip Morris (PMI) IQOS, are marketed as the next generation of low risk tobacco products. Does PMI really want to be offering these products in preference to smoking, or is it simply that they have to find alternative ways of stringing out for as long as they can the core sales channels for tobacco products?
IQOS is interesting in that it is purported to be a ‘novel’ tobacco product. This makes it currently exempt for tobacco duty, although it contains tobacco as does a cigarette and also contains many of the toxins of a cigarette. However, the IQOS and PMI strategy is emerging in trying to re-muddy the clearing water between tobacco products and vaping. This makes sense from a tobacco perspective. If they can successfully close the perception gap between smoking and vaping then both houses can be damned by the same plague. This would allow for support for continued unnecessary tobacco based regulations being applied to vaping, including tobacco based marketing constraints. It would also enable a much more powerful and effective lobby for the ultimate tobacco industry goal for vaping to be subject to punitive taxes, similar to those levied on tobacco products currently. IQOS becoming the Trojan horse or indeed the sacrificial lamb. In trying to cosy up the ‘heat not burn’ concept to vaping, then allowing for a product like IQOS to be taxed heavily you then provide apparent justification for similar tax regimes to be applied to vaping. If this is successful, one of the great benefits of vaping, that of lower cost, is lost and tobacco will have inflicted significant if not terminal damage to vaping and successfully protected its core tobacco base.
If the above theory of Machiavellian tobacco industry tactics is justified, then what of tobacco business ownership of vaping businesses? To those unaware, tobacco businesses have been hoovering up vaping businesses since 2011. Below is a table of the acquisitions and related brands.
The Obfuscation of Big Tobacco’s Acquisitions
Any brand’s ambition, indeed its very purpose for existing is to create customer allegiance with its qualities and customer perceptions. When Virgin moved from records to planes, wine, finance etc, it did not obscure ownership, indeed, it shouts from the roof tops the Virgin brand associated to these offshoot ventures. This is understandable because when you have a brand that has customer confidence and allegiance, you use it again and again to create immediate momentum in new business ventures. Interesting therefore is the unwillingness of any of the tobacco businesses to exclaim the ownership of vaping business. Not only do we see the use of brands such as Vype and Vuse being created by big tobacco to brand their developed e-cigarettes but we also see acquired independent brands being continued to be used such as 10 motives, VIP, Blu, E-Lites and many others without any explicit association to their new owners and no attempt to try to lever any extant tobacco brands into their respective stable of vaping.
Tobacco is a very unique product group. It has a vast customer base in excess of 1 billion worldwide. These customers are generally brand loyal, but unlike other products that loyalty is not based on normal brand associations. Smokers understand the cognitive dissonance they must accept that smoking exists within. This is the tension between two conflicting positions: the first, through addiction, they need to smoke; the second is that they know they are causing themselves potentially irreparable damage with each puff. The addiction keeps them aligned to purchasing, not any respect or association to the company selling the products. It is therefore understandable that when smokers stop, they also are released from this conflict and free of the forced patronage to the tobacco businesses that they were paying hard earned money to provide products that were causing each and every user such harm. Vapers are ex-smokers or weaning ex-smokers. Breaking free from the grasp of tobacco means to almost all achieving a divorce from a very coercive and sinister marriage.
So why not earlier if they really cared?
There is a very simple truth that needs to be understood. Vaping as a technology is actually very simple: A battery, a coil and a wick. At least this was the simple form that created the first commercial and successful vaping products. Tobacco and pharmaceutical companies have R&D budgets in the billions of dollars; if they really wanted to have created a smoking cessation or harm reduction product they could have invented the e-cig a decade earlier.
They did not, not because they did not have the insight, funding or competence, but that actually they have no desire or motivation to create a product that if unleashed would destroy the tobacco industry’s only product market, deliver a worldwide health dividend, and remove from the pharmaceutical companies one of the most profitable and long-term streams of income, the seeding of the insidious pestilence that smoking delivers.
Knowing who you are buying from and the strategies and ambitions of brand owners should be of immense interest to those vapers who share a responsibility for ensuring vaping succeeds and smoking eventually fails. This outcome will never be delivered by those who are not just conflicted, but are actually adversely motivated by their stake in the grubby industry that brought the need for vaping in the first place.