Picture: 123RF/Oleg Gavrilov
Picture: 123RF/Oleg Gavrilov

Veteran investment writer Marc Hasenfuss recently wrote in the FM how British American Tobacco (BAT) believes it can generate £5bn from new-category brands like Vype, Vuse, glo and Velo by 2025.

Apparently BAT is now telling consumers that the best way to avoid the health risks of smoking is not to simply quit. Rather, the company and others are touting the new-generation vaping devices as “healthier.”

And yet there is no consensus among experts that these new devices actually reduce the risk to smokers.

Indeed, this is evidently why the industry is very careful to refer to these devices as “potentially reduced-risk” products. There seems to be some reluctance to guarantee harm reduction — perhaps because the industry has learnt some hard lessons from its previous experiences of promising “healthier” cigarettes.

They’ve lied to us before — are they doing it again now?

One Philip Morris International (PMI) executive once stated boldly: “None of the things which have been found in tobacco smoke are at concentrations which can be considered harmful. Anything can be considered harmful. Apple sauce is harmful if you get too much of it.”

Back in 1954, the tobacco industry told the public: “If we had any knowledge that we were selling a product harmful to consumers, we would stop business tomorrow.”

Then in 1972, it promised: “If our product is harmful we’ll stop making it.”

And in 1997, it doubled down on this, saying: “We would shut manufacturing plants down instantly if scientists prove cigarettes cause cancer.”

Twenty years later, in 2017, the narrative had changed entirely. This time, we were told: “We know tobacco products pose real and serious health risks and the only way to avoid these risks is not to use them.”

Actually, it turns out that the tobacco companies knew all along about the health risks. This was revealed by internal industry documents that record the industry’s early acknowledgement of the fact that cigarettes are — and always were — undeniably harmful.

For 42 years, internal documents show, PMI was well aware that the design of its filters resulted in consumers ingesting non-degradable, toxin-coated cellulose acetate fragments. And yet it did nothing about this — noting cynically that “the illusion of filtration is as important as the fact of filtration”.

Nor is this the first time the industry claims to have developed healthier alternatives. Back in 1952 the US Federal Trade Commission slapped PMI on the wrist for making false claims about reducing irritation from smoking.

That same year, tobacco firm Lorillard introduced Kent cigarettes, boasting that its micronite filter offered “the greatest health protection in cigarette history”. Lorillard’s secret? Those filters contained asbestos.

Then, in 1989, the RJ Reynolds company released Premier, its smokeless cigarette, for test-marketing; but it abandoned the product  in the same year. A few years later, PMI launched its “healthier" Accord smoking system. In 2000 RJ Reynolds began marketing its Eclipse cigarette as a healthier alternative. And in 2001 Brown & Williamson began test-marketing Advance, its “reduced risk” cigarette.

In 2002, many of these innovations came to a grinding halt when a jury ordered PMI to pay $150m for making misrepresentations about its “light” cigarettes. Already in 1989 the Canadian government started requiring cigarette manufacturers to list the additives for each brand, which led to PMI temporarily withdrawing its brands and reformulating them. In the end, PMI withdrew its cigarettes from the Canadian market entirely.

So what happened to these earlier “healthier” cigarettes? And how is this new generation of products now being touted as “healthier” any different to what went before?

Is this just a tax trick?

This new generation of cigarettes — whether it is marketed as “heat not burn”, “electronic” or “vaping” — is more than just a new product line for tobacco companies. It offers them an opportunity to change the way their products are taxed significantly, by touting them as some sort of better alternative that governments should actually be encouraging their citizens to use.

It’s a tactic that has been surprisingly successful so far. As PMI says in its annual report: “To date, we have been largely successful in demonstrating to regulators that our reduced-risk products are not cigarettes, and as such they are generally taxed either as a separate category or as other tobacco products, which typically yields more favourable tax rates than cigarettes.”

But governments’ failure to adopt a much stronger upfront policy position regarding the taxation of these products may prove to be their Achilles heel. It is entirely conceivable that big tobacco may, in the not too distant future, find that the majority of its revenue is coming from these heated tobacco products. Which means these governments won’t be able to collect the sort of tax they get from traditional cigarettes.

It’s still dirty tobacco

It means we’d better hope this new stuff really is “reduced risk”, and not just the industry blowing smoke. Alas, I fear the latter may be the case.

Most likely, big tobacco will use the same tactics that it used for its combustible cigarettes for its new stable of products. It will, in other words, continue to be a merchant of disinformation.

It will continue to use proxies to speak on its behalf, it will continue to misdirect our politicians, it will continue to lobby and capture, it will continue to use our enforcement agencies as its own economic hitmen and it will continue to keep its supply chains opaque.

And, you can bet, it will continue to pursue every possible avenue to dilute, delay, deflect and derail efforts aimed at regulating it better.

*Snyckers is an independent illicit trade expert. Her exposé on the role of Big Tobacco in fuelling illicit trade – Dirty Tobacco – was released in May 2020. You can follow her on Twitter @telitasnyckers

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