[this is the second installment in an occasional series on very silly things that are said by vaping advocates. See an earlier one here]
One of the most persistent memes in the vaping advocacy echo chamber is that anyone working in public health and tobacco control who has even a flicker of an amber or red light on their policy dashboard about any platform of vaping regulation, is helping Big Tobacco. In fact, we are probably being paid by them.
Here’s how their argument runs
- Vaping is a massive threat to the tobacco industry’s tobacco sales
- Any policy or statement that slows or stops smokers switching to e-cigs keeps or returns smokers to smoking benefits the tobacco industry
From this it follows that
- Any caution or hesitancy about allowing unrestrained vaping in any location, using any ingredients in any vaping equipment helps Big Tobacco
- Any attention drawn to the growing evidence that vaping potentially has serious health concerns like this, this or this, and does not match the hype about e-cigs being exceptionally effective ways of quitting smoking also helps Big Tobacco.
Across 40 years in tobacco control I’ve never encountered a greater piece of weapons-grade confused stupidity than this truly bizarre claim. Let’s take a look at the gaping holes in what they say.
Tobacco control has blown every cherished Big Tobacco policy out of the water
First, there’s the teensy little problemette of how tobacco control has fought and won protracted battles against the tobacco industry’s efforts to retain tobacco-friendly policies over 50 years. Those working in tobacco control in Australia from the late 1960s have won every major policy battle they ever fought. Here are some highlights:
- Four generations of pack health warnings starting in 1973, all resisted tooth and nail by the industry
- Complete indoor workplace smoking bans, including on all public transport, and in all restaurants, clubs, bars and pubs. Workplace bans reduce number of cigarettes smoked over 24 hours and were responsible for about 22% of the total decline in tobacco consumption in Australia between 1988-1995 when they were being introduced
- Total advertising and sponsorship bans
- Unique among all general retail products, retail display bans (all stock kept out-of-sight)
- Introduction of world-leading mass reach public education programs
- Globally unique plain tobacco packaging commenced in Australian in 2012, starting a global domino effect that now sees 17 nations having implemented or legislated for their introduction, with more on the way. The industry invested many millions to stop this, but always lost
- end of all tobacco growing in Australia (this let the air out of the industry’s tyres to lobby via growers in the few electorates where tobacco was once grown)
- end of all tobacco manufacturing (BAT and Philip Morris products are all now imported). This benefits tobacco control because there’s now negligible local industry employment and all profits are repatriated, a disbenefit to the balance of trade and therefore an incentive for governments to reduce smoking further)
- world’s highest retail price of tobacco led by tax policy and the industry using tax rises as air cover to raise their own margins
- ban on personal importation of cigarettes by mail
- Import duty free limit of 25 cigarettes in an open pack
- The Liberal, Labor and Greens parties all refuse tobacco industry donations, unique among all industries
- No university allows staff to accept tobacco industry grants or students to take scholarships
- Only far right fringe of politics would ever be seen in a photo opportunity with tobacco or vaping interests.
- Big Tobacco ranks (way) last as the industry with the lowest reputation (see chart below)
- Widespread denormalization of smoking
- The industry understands that all the above make it an unattractive employment choice which creates staff quality problems
All this has seen a nearly constant decline in smoking prevalence in adults and teenagers, in the average number of cigarettes smoked per day by continuing smokers and rises in the proportion of people who have never smoked and in public support for tobacco control measures. Only 11% of Australian adults smoked daily in 2019, the lowest figure ever recorded and representing some 100,000 fewer daily smokers in the last three years. The proportion of young adults aged 18–24 never smoking more than 100 cigarettes in their life has increased from 58% to 80% between 2001 and 2019. These are disastrous numbers for Big Tobacco.
So yes, it’s easy to see that Australia’s tobacco control workers have done everything they can to help Big Tobacco over many years. We are just loved by them. They send us Christmas presents and display our photos in their foyers as platinum in-kind supporters.
If we were helping them, we were very, very bad at it.
And of course, how very stupid of us all to be working for decades to reduce smoking when it’s going to put us all on the dole, as this observer notes.
But what about vaping? Is this so-called disruptor really changing the dance card and seeing Big Tobacco secretly applauding tobacco control because they are now grateful that fewer are smoking? All major tobacco companies are heavily invested in e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products. The industry business model is not e-cigarettes instead of cigarettes. It is e-cigarettes as well as cigarettes with all the companies doing all they can to maximise sales for both. And as we’ll see below, vaping is holding far more smokers in smoking than it is tipping out of it.
Big Tobacco is in total lockstep with vaping advocates’ goals
When extreme libertarian, former Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm indulged himself by holding a Senate inquiry into “measures introduced to restrict personal choice ‘for the individual’s own good’, vaping was one of the big agenda items. Few public health agencies bothered to waste time by sending submissions to it, but four tobacco companies ( Philip Morris Limited, BAT Australia, Imperial Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International ) did, along with vaping advocates – you know, the ones who like to say that tobacco control “helps” Big Tobacco. Leyonhjelm’s party was funded by Philip Morris.
If you read through the linked tobacco company submissions to the inquiry alongside the policy goals of vaping advocates, their hopes are often interchangeable: minimum controls on e-cigs and vaping. Public health agencies want serious controls, and are supporting health minister Greg Hunt’s plan to make nicotine juice available only via special prescription.
Vaping advocates like to present themselves as champions of cottage industry vaping companies, often talking as though these were the equivalent of folksy craft beer companies bravely taking on the majors, chanting anti big business, people-power slogans to make vapers feel all warm inside at their revolutionary zeal.
But many of these warriors are ignorant or naïve about the history of the tobacco industry’s mergers and acquisitions with vaping companies that they see as additions (not substitutes) to their cigarette mainstays.(see chart below). Just as successful independent micro-brewers like Little Creatures get swallowed up by global companies, the tobacco industry has swallowed up many government tobacco monopolies over the years, to either get rid of the competition or piggyback on local reputations. Altria in the USA invested $US12.8 billion in Juul, the e-cigarette brand favoured by teenagers in 2018, although this may be going pear-shaped for the company. The bottom line is that Big Tobacco can, has and will eat any minnow vaping company for breakfast anytime it chooses to.
No tobacco company has taken its foot off the floor of marketing and promoting cigarettes where and whenever it can. And all continue to lobby to erode effective tobacco control policies, as I argued here, here and here. Vaping advocates are the ones who are helping big tobacco, while tobacco control is working to stop making all the mistakes with vaping regulation that were made with tobacco by letting the industry do what it liked for much of the twentieth century.
In the 1970s, the Australian tobacco companies quietly groomed an eccentric Bondi GP, William Whitby who wrote two self-published books about how smoking was good for you. They even provided him with media training. Today we have a small handful of doctors in Australia who are doubtless being similarly deeply appreciated by the local transnational tobacco company representatives for all the work they are doing to promote vaping and to attack organisations and individuals working to reduce smoking.
In a recent longitudinal study of US vapers, 88.5% of those who were dual using cigarettes and e-cigarettes at baseline, were still smoking a year later. The industry is well aware of such data and sees vaping as a terrific way of holding smokers in smoking far more than it tips the out of it, while also serving to distract attention from further evidence-based measures to reduce smoking. The table below shows that for every smoker who had a positive outcome after 1 year using e-cigarettes, there were 4.6 who had a negative outcome (relapse back to smoking, took up smoking instead, progressed to dual use) or stayed the same (smoking and vaping, or continuing to vape).
It is vaping advocates who are helping this process, not tobacco control people.