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Wednesday 7 August 2019

Tortoise Take ∙ Opinion

Smokescreen

Big Tobacco says that it’s cleaning up its act. Really?

By Peter Hoskin

At some point in the past few years, Big Tobacco became Little-to-no Tobacco – or so they’d have us believe. Look at the annual reports of companies such as Philip Morris International or British American Tobacco, and the emphasis is no longer on smoking in its traditional, combustible form but on so-called “reduced-risk products,” including e-cigarettes and heated tobacco. Photos show smiling models clinging on to sleek digi-sticks, beside slogans such as “Transitioning to a smoke-free future”.

The marketing is not entirely divorced from reality. Big Tobacco is using money and manpower to try and renew itself. In December, the American mega-corporation Altria bought a 35-per-cent stake in the young-but-dominant vaping company Juul. Soon after, it was revealed that Philip Morris International – which spun off from Altria in 2008 – had entered the list of the top-50 applicants at the European Patent Office because of its research into new technologies.

Altruism does not explain these business practices. Market forces do. According to the World Health Organisation, the total number of tobacco smokers has slowly declined over the last two decades – and is set to continue that way, even though populations are growing. Meanwhile, the number of people using e-cigarettes is rising like a puff of water vapour. Campaigns and policies to turn consumers away from cigarettes, and towards cleaner alternatives, appear to be working.

However, there are other, less encouraging market forces. The number of tobacco smokers may be expected to decline overall, but it is still an overwhelming number – more than one billion people. And, if you look beneath that total, the declines are happening more slowly in some areas than in others. Or not at all. The WHO expects that Africa will gain 18 million smokers over the next decade.

For all the talk of a smoke-free future, then, the actual future is anything but. And the big tobacco companies are producing accordingly. Last year, Philip Morris International shipped out far many more cigarettes than it did heated tobacco units, its favourite “reduced-risk product”. The proportions would have been even starker were it not for Japan, where heated tobacco is especially popular.

But what if those proportions were weighted against cigarettes instead? What if, as the annual reports and press releases suggest, Big Tobacco really were moving into cleaner products wholesale? Even then, it wouldn’t necessarily be a cause for celebration.

There’s a clue in how British American Tobacco refers to its “reduced-risk products” – by adding the word “potentially” to the front. The benefits of these devices are not entirely confirmed, and there could be some dangers too. At the end of last year, the US surgeon general, Jerome Adams, issued his office’s first public health advisory for 15 years, with the intention of “immediately addressing the epidemic of youth e-cigarette use”. His main worry was the nicotine that’s concentrated in e-cigarettes, and which can “impact memory, learning and attention”.

This wasn’t just scaremongering. Thanks in large part to Juul – which, with its hashtag-friendly publicity and palate-friendly flavours, has colonised over 70 per cent of the market – vaping is big among American teenagers. In its Monitoring the Future survey for 2018, the University of Michigan found that 20.9 per cent of 12th-graders had vaped nicotine within the last month, up from 11.0 per cent in 2017. This increase is, as one of the survey team explains, “the largest ever recorded by Monitoring the Future in the 44 years that it has continuously tracked dozens of substances”. It also means that, despite teens turning away from traditional cigs, overall nicotine-use is on the rise.

There could be other dangers in the vapour, but the scientists can’t agree. For every study claiming that e-cigarettes take young people away from combustible cigarettes, there’s another saying that they’re a gateway. For all of Public Health England’s insistence that vaping is 95 per cent safer than tobacco, the WHO reckons that it is “undoubtedly harmful and should therefore be subject to regulation”.

Ah, regulation. That is the great question. Much like the tech giants, the big tobacco companies are international in scope and ambition – and this means that they face hundreds of different laws across different national boundaries. In a way, the new smoking devices give them an easy route out. E-cigarettes for those countries where tobacco is frowned upon; traditional cigarettes for where it is not.

This global patchwork is unlikely to ever change. But there can still be exemplar policies and lodestar states. In his advisory note, the US surgeon general advocated “including e-cigarettes in smoke-free indoor air policies”. Only a month ago, San Franciscan politicians voted to ban the sale and distribution of e-cigarettes in their city, which is, incidentally, where Juul is headquartered.

At the very least, policymakers should start from a position of scepticism – about Big Tobacco and its motives. The whole world is currently a testing ground for new technologies that are scientifically and socially contentious. It is also a marketplace for lots of old-fashioned, smoky cigarettes. We all still live in Marlboro Country.

 

Graphics by Chris Newell