How Big Tobacco Is Helping the E-Cig Industry Thrive

By May Wilkerson 04/18/16

Tobacco companies have major influence over state lobbyists, making it hard for states to regulate and tax e-cigs under existing anti-smoking laws.

How Big Tobacco Is Helping the E-Cig Industry Thrive
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Smoking may be going out of style, with fewer young Americans picking up the habit than any other time on record. It's a testament to the success of anti-smoking campaigns in tarnishing Big Tobacco’s image. But despite this, tobacco companies remain powerful, thanks to decades of well-honed strategies that include direct lobbying, third-party alliances and “grassroots” advocacy campaigns. And now these companies are harnessing their power behind the growing e-cigarette industry, VICE News reports.

Tobacco companies have massive state lobbying networks made up of hundreds of lobbyists. And over the past five years, they've donated at least $63 million to state candidates, committees and ballot initiatives. Their main opponents, the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association, also have extensive lobbying networks, but give much less money to state politicians.

Because of this, tobacco companies have been able to fight off higher taxes on cigarettes, which evidence shows is the simplest way to cut smoking rates. Out of 24 states to propose higher cigarette taxes last year, just eight of them passed and only one state (Nevada) raised taxes by more than 50 cents. According to health groups, tax hikes of under $1 are much less effective.

And now tobacco companies are moving in on the rapidly growing e-cigarette market. Though the FDA announced plans to regulate the electronic nicotine devices, regulations or taxes remain in the hands of state governments. So far, only four states have been able to pass taxes on e-cigs. And tobacco companies’ influence on state lobbyists has made it harder to regulate and tax e-cigs under existing anti-smoking laws. So far, tobacco companies have managed to pass language in at least 19 states that claims e-cigarettes are not tobacco products.

"The tobacco companies never give up," said Stanton Glantz, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco's Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. "They're like the Borg (Star Trek’s undefeatable alien horde).”

Nowhere has the fight to regulate tobacco products been more heated than in California. Altria and Reynolds, two major tobacco companies, have spent about $5.4 million on lobbying in the state since 2011, compared to $2.7 million spent by anti-smoking health groups over the same period. 

Last year, e-cig sales in the U.S. reached $3.3 billion, according to Wells Fargo Securities, and are predicted to overtake sales of traditional cigarettes within the next ten years. While tobacco companies still control less than half of this market, they've recently been growing their share by buying or starting their own e-cigarette brands.

Health experts generally agree that “vaping” is less harmful than smoking, but it remains unclear how much less. E-cigs "generally emit lower levels of dangerous toxins" than cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but they can also release carcinogenic compounds and heavy metals. Though the devices could be beneficial to public health if they help smokers quit, studies have found about three-quarters of e-cig users also smoke cigarettes, and they could prolong the habit.

Meanwhile, teens continue to be drawn towards e-cigarettes over traditional cigarettes. A recent study shows that electronic and vapor cigarettes use has risen to 16%, up from 13.4% in 2014 and 4.5% in 2013.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.