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

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

Compare this for the global tobacco market, just about the most valuable fast moving consumer goods industries, worth an estimated US$800 billion – more than 260 times the dimensions of the electronic cigarette market. This highly profitable tobacco market, outside China, is dominated and controlled by just 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 have a stake within the electronic cigarette market, with a lot of buying up independent e-cigarette companies.

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

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

On the surface, it might appear to be the tobacco industry is simply buying up these companies before they become a major threat to its profits. Or perhaps, that it sees a bright future for e-cigarettes and wishes to control the current 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 essential to question how many other motivations they might have.

Tobacco advertising on tv is almost universally banned, the tobacco-friendly states of Indonesia and Zimbabwe being two holdouts. It has been decades since a tobacco ad appeared on television screens in america and United Kingdom. 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 beauty to promote addictive products is quite familiar territory for the tobacco industry. These kinds of campaigns contradict the tobacco industry’s pubic relations message that it is only thinking about selling e-cigarettes to adults who are not able to quit smoking.

Increase the fact that PMI can no longer show packs of Marlboro on store shelves or splash the iconic red Marlboro chevron on Formula One cars, it could promote the usa$69 billion Marlboro brand by putting it on the HeatStick product.

E-cigarettes may also help the tobacco industry undo the consequences of policies that have seen cigarettes pushed 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 advantage of reducing smoking rates.

Pushing to enable e-cigarette use within pubs and restaurants means there is no must quit, because once you can’t smoke, simply use an e-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 taken care of of tobacco control policy makers trying to reduce smoking. The industry has not raised a white flag and decided to no more oppose effective tobacco control policy reform.

It really is business as always: oppose, lobby and litigate when countries implement laws that influence on cigarette sales. Which is why the worldwide treaty to lessen tobacco use, the planet 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 in the policy table. When it can point to e-cigarettes as “proof” it cares about consumers and it is working to reduce tobacco harms, then maybe it will not be shut out from the regulatory process. Irrespective of that e-cigarettes certainly are a tiny percentage of its total business.

And finally, e-cigarettes really 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 over 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 better.