The rise of vaping has nothing to do with Big Tobacco
© Getty Images

There are reasonable debates to be had about the role e-cigarettes can and should play when it comes to harm reduction and public health. Some public-health advocates see them as a life-saving alternative to their disease-causing combustible cousins that can help smokers quit. Others point to the addictive nature of nicotine, the rising popularity of vaping among youth and the fact that we won't truly know the public-health consequences of e-liquid use for years to come.

What isn't reasonable is the narrative—popular in some quarters—that the rise of vaping is primarily or even substantially attributable to Big Tobacco. The major U.S. cigarette companies have no shortage of well-documented past faults, but they didn't invent e-cigarettes and they don't control the vaping market.

ADVERTISEMENT
Indeed, in an extensive special report on e-cigarettes, Newsweek flatly concluded that “the multimillion-dollar tobacco conglomerates are losing” the battle for the e-cigarette market. In what remains a relatively new market with a huge number of small players, it is difficult to pin down reliable statistics. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Convenience Store News suggest the three largest U.S. tobacco companies combine to control a little over 60 percent of e-cigarette sales in gas stations and convenience stores. But it bears noting that convenience store and gas station sales of e-cigarettes are absolutely dwarfed by the burgeoning multibillion-dollar vape store market, where Big Tobacco has almost no footprint.

 

Makers of high-end vaping devices and e-liquids have carved out their own subculture that has just about nothing to do with the Big Tobacco firms, whom they'd love to see fail. Altogether, Big Tobacco accounts for no more than 25 percent of a global vapor-products market the business intelligence firm Euromonitor International expects will exceed $10 billion in 2017

Big Tobacco didn’t invent vaping either. By all accounts, the modern e-cigarette is the invention of Chinese pharmacist Han Li, who created it in 2003 as a smoking-cessation aid. Several of the largest tobacco companies spent decades and millions of dollars on alternatives to cigarettes that they hoped would be safer. These include include “heat not burn” technologies, lower-tar cigarettes and better filters. The former does offer promise as a harm-reduction technology, but has yet to catch on in the United States. The latter two simply don’t offer meaningful health benefits.

To date, none of Big Tobacco’s innovations have caught on in the way e-cigarettes have. Insofar as Big Tobacco has innovated in vaping technologies, it's largely been in refining products that others invented. 

None of this is to say that Big Tobacco companies don’t care about e-cigarettes or don’t encourage current adult smokers to experiment with vaping. They certainly do. All three of the major companies in the U.S. market have invested significantly in producing and marketing vapor products. When it comes to public policy, it's therefore inevitable that Big Tobacco sometimes makes common cause with vaping groups and vaping companies.

But interests don’t always align. Multibillion-dollar giants sometimes will favor regulations that smaller players won’t. For example, restrictions on e-cigarette advertising would disproportionately benefit big players who already control many sales channels, while making it harder for smaller players to enter the market.

Thanks to a series of mergers and divestitures, none of the companies involved in the legion big-tobacco scandals of the 1980s and 1990s still exists in the same form it did then. Nonetheless, today's Big Tobacco interests still have a less-than-savory reputation. It’s reasonable that the media pay close attention to how these companies behave and to question their actions. But the facts show pretty clearly that growth of the e-cigarette market isn’t a Big Tobacco conspiracy. 

Eli Lehrer (@EliLehrerDC) is president of the R Street Institute (@RSI), a nonprofit that supports limited government in Washington, D.C.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.