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

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

Compare this to the global tobacco market, probably the most valuable fast moving consumer goods industries, worth an estimated US$800 billion – more than 260 times how big the electronic 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 the major global tobacco companies have a stake within the electronic cigarette market, with most buying up independent electronic cigarette companies.

Philip Morris International, known as PMI, has taken it one step further: along with recently purchasing UK e-cigarette company Nicocigs Ltd, it will likely be launching the ecig. 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 plans to introduce the Marlboro HeatStick in test markets in Japan and Italy later this year. Similar sorts of products were introduced inside the 1990s, but failed dismally when smokers rejected both taste and insufficient smoking satisfaction. PMI appears hopeful this latest generation of warmth technology could be more acceptable to smokers.

On the surface, it could appear to be the tobacco market is simply buying up these companies before they become a major threat to the profits. Or even, which it sees a bright future for e-cigarettes and wishes to control the marketplace.

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 how many other motivations they may 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 tv screens in the United States and Great Britain. But e-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 sweetness to market addictive products is quite familiar territory for the tobacco industry. These sorts of campaigns contradict the tobacco industry’s pubic relations message that it must be only thinking about selling e-cigarettes to adults who are not able to give up 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 US$69 billion Marlboro brand by putting it on the HeatStick product.

E-cigarettes may also assist the tobacco industry undo the consequences 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 have an additional positive benefit of reducing smoking rates.

Pushing to allow e-cigarette utilization in pubs and restaurants means there is no have to quit, because whenever you can’t smoke, just use an electronic cigarette instead. But, don’t forget to help keep smoking the real stuff when you can too.

Since acquiring e-cigarette brands, not one tobacco company has stepped out of the way of tobacco control policy makers attempting to reduce smoking. The market has not yet raised a white flag and decided to no longer oppose effective tobacco control policy reform.

It is actually business as always: oppose, lobby and litigate when countries implement laws that impact on cigarette sales. Which is the reason the international treaty to minimize tobacco use, the 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 industry is not really a welcome stakeholder in formulating public health policy.

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

Lastly, e-cigarettes certainly are a huge distraction to tobacco control advocates and policy makers. Without 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 to the deadly US$800 billion arm from the business the higher.