31.01.2019 - FT: Big Tobacco and Generation Vape E-cigarettes don’t just appeal to hardened smokers; they draw teenagers in as well

31 Ιανουάριος 2019


In recent years, Philip Morris, the global tobacco group, has steered clear of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos. No wonder. The WEF defines its mission with the pious mantra, “improving the state of the world”.

Big Tobacco has been pilloried for damaging global health, due to the link between cancer and smoking. Tobacco executives saw little point in rubbing shoulders with the global elite in the Swiss Alps – and the WEF didn’t want to put tobacco bosses on its lofty panels. But at this year’s Davos meeting, there was an intriguing whiff of change in the air.

André Calantzopoulos, chief executive of Philip Morris, could be spotted stalking the corridors of smart hotels with a new message to impart: the tobacco industry needs support from governments to improve smokers’ health. Yes, that’s right. In the past couple of years, Philip Morris, along with other giants such as Altria and British American Tobacco, has started promoting the idea that smokers should replace traditional cigarettes with electronic cigarettes.

These devices, with brand names such as IQOS (Philip Morris), Juul (now partly owned by Altria) and iSwitch (from BAT), deliver a nicotine hit via electronically heated vapour rather than tobacco smoke.

Research suggests that the health risks of “vaping” are much lower than for traditional cigarettes – meaning, in essence, that smokers can feed their addiction more safely. So far, regulators have taken a mixed approach to the innovation. In some countries, tobacco companies can promote the devices to a limited degree.

In Japan, for example, IQOS has captured about 15 per cent of the market (while vaping products have 20 per cent overall), executives say. But in the US, where smokeless cigarettes only account for 4 per cent of sales, the company cannot promote the “health” benefits of IQOS.

Tobacco executives such as Calantzopoulos are pleading with regulators and investors to back their new “smokeless” pitch as part of a drive for better global health. “We know that smokeless products are much better,” he explained in Davos. “We need to take a scientific approach, to get away from all this emotion [about tobacco]. We all need to look at the facts.”

I felt conflicted as I listened to Calantzopoulos’s pitch. The cynic in me is apt to discount this “smokeless” campaign as just another effort by the tobacco industry to safeguard profits at a time when they are being squeezed by anti-tobacco messaging. And the puritan in me is tempted to say it is wrong for anyone to push a new device to get people hooked on nicotine.

What makes this issue particularly emotive for parents of teenagers (like me) is that the Juul has become wildly popular in US high schools and middle schools. That is partly because it has been marketed with appealing flavours such as mango nectar, and because the lack of smoke makes it hard to detect.

But it is also because celebrities such as Johnny Depp and Bella Hadid have been seen using the Juul, making it seem “cool”. The result is that e-cigarettes are not just being used by hardened adult smokers who want a less unhealthy way to satisfy their craving; they are also making a new generation interested in nicotine.

That infuriates me. It also angers Scott Gottlieb, America’s Food and Drug commissioner: late last year he announced new curbs on sales of flavoured vaping products. “As a father of three, I hear daily from parents and teachers worried about the epidemic use of electronic cigarettes and nicotine addiction among kids,” he said, noting that “from 2017 to 2018, there was a 78 per cent increase in e-cigarette use among high school students”.

Indeed, FDA data says that 3.6 million US middle- and high-school students are now using e-cigarettes – a striking number. Yet humans are always going to embrace vices of some sort, and society’s attitudes towards them are often laced with hypocrisy.

I loathe smoking today but in my youth I puffed away because I enjoyed the camaraderie that cigarettes can create. I drink alcohol (though I know it is far from “healthy”), consume processed sugar (called “poison” by health activists at the WEF) and support legalising marijuana (if properly regulated).

While I hate the idea that teenage parties in America are rife with kids “Juuling”, I can also see the logic in promoting smokeless devices to smokers, particularly those whose addiction will otherwise cause more severe health damage.

The Philip Morris campaign forces us to contemplate whether it is better to see the world in moralistic black and white or to embrace pragmatic relativism with multiple shades of grey.

Should we fight for a world where nobody has access to any nicotine, or merely to minimise the damage in a world where nicotine will inevitably be used? Will offering a “healthier” device to deliver nicotine prompt more people to consume the drug? And is this a worthwhile trade-off to reduce the damage among existing smokers? There are no easy answers.

One thing that is clear is that those contradictions are not going to disappear soon – not when men such as Gottlieb are determined to crack down and Big Tobacco is ready to fight back on “health” grounds. If you are a subscriber and would like to receive alerts when Gillian’s articles are published, just click the button “add to myFT”, which appears at the top of this page beside the author’s name.