Altria wants you to know how dangerous e-cigs are!

Reuters news service has issued a special report covering a range of developments and controversies in the vaping products area. The article leads with a discussion of the marked increase in health warnings about e-cigs coming from cigarette companies. Packages for products like Mark Ten and other Big Tobacco produced e-cigs have recently begun displaying extensive and dire-sounding warnings, much longer than those on combustible cigarettes. As if a company that markets hydrogen bombs and firecrackers were to put merely the following add on their hydrogen bombs: “Caution, exploding hydrogen bombs may be hazardous to your health” – but emblazoning all over their firecrackers a lengthy warning listing a host of ominous possibilities involved with their use.

Why, one asks, would a cigarette company want to arouse public fears about use of electronic cigarettes? Hmmmm….

Indeed public confidence in the efficacy of e-cigs in smoking cessation has gone down, Reuters reports, even as public concerns about their minimal dangers has risen. If there is a strategy behind Big Tobacco scare tactics, it is working, suggests the article by Martinne Geller. “By accentuating the risks of ‘vaping,’ [say critics], big [Tobacco] firms may deter smokers from trying the new devices, even though most scientists agree they are safer.” Geller quotes ECF’s own Oliver Kershaw about the way such tactics could reduce competition and put the squeeze on Big Tobacco’s smaller competitors who don’t sell smokes.

A spokesperson for Altria, which markets the low-risk Mark Ten brand as well as death-dealing Marlboros, shrugs off the charge about squeezing small competitors, claiming ignorance about the impact of regulatory burdens on small companies. “I don’t know how they run their businesses and what it would cost them to meet those requirements.” One wonders whether a rudimentary business course at a Richmond area community college might be in order.

If such Big Tobacco warnings about e-cigs are indeed part of a surreptitious strategy to harm the competition, it is working, Geller notes. Fifteen percent of Brits now think vaping is just as dangerous as smoking, double last year’s figure, she reports, using figures from ASH (Action on Smoking and Health). And she quotes former ASH director Clive Bates on the way anti-smoking groups are abetting Big Tobacco in its efforts to smear vaping and thus slow the decline of smoking: “They really are all doing their utmost to protect the cigarette trade. They just don’t realize it.”

Geller discusses the widening rift between e-cigarettes that imitate combustible smokes (the stronghold of the Big Tobacco produced vaping products) and open vaping systems that allow more variability and user control (the forte of rapidly proliferating small vape shops). She notes that cigarette seller R. J. Reynolds has requested that the FDA ban such products because of the risk of “adulteration, tampering and quality control”, essentially asking the agency to outlaw its competition.

“We fully support innovation in tobacco products, including vapor products,” counters a Reynolds spokesperson, alleging that his company seeks “a level playing-field where all manufacturers are subject to equal treatment.” But that’s not the way it looks.

The advantage that Big Tobacco possesses in convenience stores is another issue. Over the decades, cigarette sellers have developed strong relationships with convenience store owners, creating ironclad distribution networks. Cigarette sales may amount to one third of a convenience store’s revenues, and in turn, such stores have been the primary sales outlets for the cigarette companies. Putting e-cigs behind the counter in convenience stores will change the equation, but tight controls at those counters, including youth-sales bans, will create a new hurdle for the new kids on the block.

Geller also reports on the challenge to the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive by the UK e-liquid firm Totally Wicked, and notes that FDA regulations are expected in June. The whole industry is eager to see whether a truly even playing field will be created. The FDA claims it will do what it can to help the small companies. But the last word is given to former WHO official Derek Yach, who helped to create the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and who has recently advocated e-cigarettes: “”A heavy smoker has a 20 times greater risk of lung cancer. Switch to e-cigarettes and that risk is virtually going to zero.”

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