Why Is Big Tobacco Suddenly Trying to Warn People About the Risks of Smoking?

Their motives for warning people about the dangers of e-cigarettes are hardly pure.

Allegra Kirkland

If you’ve stopped into a corner store or gas station recently, you may have noticed that there on the shelves, alongside the familiar red-and-white packs of Marlboros, the yellow Camels, the turquoise Newports, are futuristic-looking boxes of electronic cigarettes. These small, battery-powered devices heat a nicotine-containing liquid, producing an inhalable vapor that provides smokers with the nicotine buzz they crave. Because they do not produce the tar, arsenic and other carcinogens that come from burning tobacco, they have been heralded as a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes, and even as a smoking cessation method.

But it turns out the two kinds of cigarettes aren’t so different from each other at all–particularly when it comes to who is selling them.

Over the last year, Big Tobacco has made major inroads into the $3 billion e-cigarette market with major companies like Altria and Reynolds American releasing their own e-cig brands. At the same time, they have taken on an unlikely role as champions for public health. Industry leaders have been lobbying hard for any negative health effects of e-cigarettes to be publicized and for people to switch over to this purportedly less-harmful smoking alternative. This week, the CEOs of Reynolds and Lorillard, two of the country’s largest tobacco companies, urged the FDA to move faster to regulate the burgeoning industry, citing concerns that e-cig users were relying on cheap, low-quality products purchased online and imported from China.

That’s right: the leaders of an industry that sells a product that kills some 480,000 Americansevery year are now in a panic to warn consumers about the health risks of smoking. It is a remarkable about-face. So what’s in it for them?

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