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For a product rarely anyone had been aware of 5 years ago, they now seem to be on everyone’s lips. While much has been written about the safety of these products and their potential to either support or ruin efforts to lessen smoking rates, it’s timely to think about why the global tobacco industry has taken such a keen interest in buying electronic cigarette companies.

Despite e-cigarettes seemingly dominating public and academic debate on tobacco control, the global electronic cigarette market is minuscule in comparison to traditional tobacco products. Euromonitor estimates the global e-cigarette market was worth US$3 billion in 2013.

Compare this for the global tobacco market, probably the most valuable fast moving consumer goods industries, worth an estimated US$800 billion – a lot more than 260 times the size of the e-cigarette market. This highly profitable tobacco market, outside of China, is dominated and controlled by simply five major players: Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco, British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International, and Altria/Philip Morris USA.

All of the global tobacco companies now have a stake inside the e-cigarette market, with most buying up independent e-cigarette companies.

Philip Morris International, called PMI, has taken it one step further: as well as recently purchasing UK electronic cigarette company Nicocigs Ltd, it will be launching the ecig brands. Unlike e-cigs, which vapourise liquid nicotine, the HeatStick takes normal tobacco and heats it to 350 degrees Celsius to produce a tobacco vapour.

PMI wants to introduce the Marlboro HeatStick in test markets in Japan and Italy later this season. Similar kinds of products were introduced in the 1990s, but failed dismally when smokers rejected both taste and absence of smoking satisfaction. PMI appears hopeful this latest generation of heat technology could be more acceptable to smokers.

On the surface, it might seem like the tobacco market is simply buying up these businesses before they turn into a major threat to the profits. Or perhaps, which it sees a bright future for e-cigarettes and wants to control the market.

But considering the amount more profitable traditional cigarettes are than e-cigarettes, and the tobacco industry’s long and chequered corporate history, it’s important to question what other motivations they might have.

Tobacco advertising on television is almost universally banned, the tobacco-friendly states of Indonesia and Zimbabwe being two holdouts. It really has been decades since a tobacco ad appeared on television screens in america and Great Britain. But e-cigarette marketing is a booming business within both countries with controversial television ad campaigns and celebrity endorsements.

Using celebrities, se.x, glamour, adventure, rebelliousness, youth and sweetness to market addictive products is quite familiar territory for your tobacco industry. These sorts of campaigns contradict the tobacco industry’s pubic relations message that it must be only interested in selling e-cigarettes to adults who are not able to stop smoking.

Increase the fact that PMI cannot show packs of Marlboro on store shelves or splash the iconic red Marlboro chevron on Formula One cars, it may promote the usa$69 billion Marlboro brand by putting it on the HeatStick product.

E-cigarettes can also assist the tobacco industry undo the effects of policies which have seen cigarettes pushed away from social settings that kept people smoking. While smoking bans are principally about protecting people, especially workers, from secondhand smoke, they may have an extra positive benefit from reducing smoking rates.

Pushing to enable e-cigarette use in pubs and restaurants means there is not any must quit, because when you can’t smoke, simply use an e-cigarette instead. But, don’t forget to maintain smoking the real stuff when you are able too.

Since acquiring electronic cigarette brands, not one tobacco company has stepped taken care of of tobacco control policy makers working to reduce smoking. The business has not yet raised a white flag and decided to no longer oppose effective tobacco control policy reform.

It really is business as always: oppose, lobby and litigate when countries implement laws that impact on cigarette sales. Which is the reason the international treaty to reduce tobacco use, the planet Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, is explicit in banning tobacco industry influence in tobacco control policy. Finding a “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict arzalp interest” in between the industry and public health means the industry will not be a welcome stakeholder in formulating public health policy.

E-cigarettes really are a potentially useful tool in giving the tobacco industry a seat back at the policy table. If this can point to e-cigarettes as “proof” it cares about consumers and is trying to reduce tobacco harms, then maybe it can not be shut from the regulatory process. Irrespective of that e-cigarettes really are a tiny part of its total business.

And lastly, e-cigarettes really are a huge distraction to tobacco control advocates and policy makers. No doubt the tobacco industry celebrates witnessing the debate and division among tobacco control colleagues on the utility of e-cigarettes in reducing the harms of tobacco use. The less attention paid towards the deadly US$800 billion arm in the business the higher.