Big tobacco's vaping pivot isn't what it seems

Cigarette bosses are cutting down, or are they?

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 13 Sep 2019

If you ask those who make them, cigarettes will soon be a thing of the past. 

For the last year, Philip Morris International, which owns the non-US sales of Marlboro, has been publically pushing the noble aim of a "smoke free future". This week, meanwhile, London-headquartered British American Tobacco announced plans to cut 2,300 jobs by 2020 as it pursues what it calls a new £5bn market for potentially reduced risk products: e-cigarettes. 

From a business perspective this would appear to make sense. Globally, the smoking rate among adults has been declining since the seventies, especially in western countries. Meanwhile the number of people vaping has increased from seven million to 35 million globally between 2011 and 2016, according to Euromonitor International. 

This new market has enabled manufacturers, who for years have been told to cut down marketing, that they are able to once again sell nicotine (which is actually their core product) from the side of a bus. 

But there are still a lot of questions over e-cigarettes as a long term strategy. As a market, it remains fairly unregulated, but that could change as questions increase over the health effects of vaping products. 

This week alone, health officials in the US urged consumers to refrain from puffing on their electronic vapes while they investigate complaints that up to 450 people suffered breathing difficulties potentially linked to inhaling oil. Donald Trump even suggested that he was considering a complete ban on the sale of flavoured e-cigarettes. 

BAT declined to comment to the Guardian how any potential ban would impact its planned £5bn revenues by 2023-2024, but it’s not unreasonable to speculate that new regulations could carve a hole in these predictions. 

In any case, it will matter less if the new sustainability narrative is a PR-friendly smoke screen to cater to an increasingly health-conscious and sustainability-focused western audience, while ramping up operations in other countries around the world where regulation is somewhat looser.

In July this year, Philip Morris International received criticism from campaign groups after launching new products and campaigns in Indonesia and Israel shortly after launching it’s smoke-free future campaign. 

Of the estimated billion smokers worldwide, 80 per cent live in middle or low income countries. That’s a big market to ignore, whether they switch to vaping or not. 


Image credit: Photo by Basil MK from Pexels


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