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For a product rarely anyone had heard of 5 years ago, they now appear to be on everyone’s lips. While much has been written about the safety of such products and their potential to either support or sabotage efforts to lessen smoking rates, it’s timely to consider why the worldwide tobacco industry has taken such a keen desire for buying electronic cigarette companies.

Despite e-cigarettes seemingly dominating public and academic debate on tobacco control, the international e-cigarette market is minuscule when compared with traditional tobacco products. Euromonitor estimates that the global electronic 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 approximately US$800 billion – more than 260 times the dimensions of the e-cigarette market. This highly profitable tobacco market, outside China, is dominated and controlled just by five major players: Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco, British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International, and Altria/Philip Morris USA.

All the major global tobacco companies will have a stake within the electronic cigarette market, with a lot of buying up independent electronic cigarette companies.

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

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

On the surface, it may appear to be the tobacco industry is simply buying up these firms before they turn into a major threat to the profits. Or even, that it sees a bright future for e-cigarettes and wants to control the market.

But considering just how much more profitable traditional cigarettes are than e-cigarettes, and also the tobacco industry’s long and chequered corporate history, it’s essential to question what other motivations they could have.

Tobacco advertising on tv is nearly universally banned, the tobacco-friendly states of Indonesia and Zimbabwe being two holdouts. This has been decades since a tobacco ad appeared on tv screens in the United States and Uk. But electronic cigarette marketing is really a booming business in both countries with controversial television ad campaigns and celebrity endorsements.

Using celebrities, se.x, glamour, adventure, rebelliousness, youth and beauty to market addictive products is extremely familiar territory for your tobacco industry. These types of campaigns contradict the tobacco industry’s pubic relations message that it must be only considering selling e-cigarettes to adults who are unable to stop smoking.

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

E-cigarettes can also assist the tobacco industry undo the results of policies that 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 have an extra positive benefit from reducing smoking rates.

Pushing to enable electronic cigarette use within pubs and restaurants means there is absolutely no need to quit, because when you can’t smoke, simply use an electronic cigarette instead. But, don’t forget to keep smoking the true stuff when you can too.

Since acquiring electronic cigarette brands, not one tobacco company has stepped out of the way of tobacco control policy makers working to reduce smoking. The industry has not yet raised a white flag and decided to no more oppose effective tobacco control policy reform.

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

E-cigarettes are a potentially useful tool in giving the tobacco industry a seat back at the policy table. If this can point out e-cigarettes as “proof” it cares about consumers and is also trying to reduce tobacco harms, then maybe it is going to no longer be shut out of the regulatory process. Irrespective of that e-cigarettes really are a tiny percentage 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 cutting the harms of tobacco use. The less attention paid for the deadly US$800 billion arm in the business the better.