The tobacco industry gets smoked out

Will the e-cigarette kill off the business that kills millions every year?

E-cigarettes: “A case can be made for them, certainly, but there are downsides, including the renormalisation of cigarettes”

E-cigarettes: “A case can be made for them, certainly, but there are downsides, including the renormalisation of cigarettes”


When it comes to corporate evil there is one perfectly legal industry that towers above the rest. It will kill at least 50 people by the time you finish reading this article. It is hard to top the financial sector for pure greed, and the arms industry has long profited from pain, suffering and death, but it is the tobacco giants that have formed the perfect alliance between greed and death and wrapped it in a fog of Sweet Afton smoke.

According to the World Health Organisation more than five million people die every year from smoking-related illnesses – about 10 people a minute – but despite this grim statistic, 25 per cent of Irish adults – or close to one million people – still smoke and the tobacco industry profits handsomely from their addiction

But over the last couple of years, that industry has been looking nervously over its should at a new technology which has the potential to hit their business hard. Electronic cigarettes. Last Tuesday morning analysts at investment bank Canaccord Genuity caused a ripple of newspaper headlines when they downgraded their recommendations on British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco because of the impact they think electronic cigarettes will have on the sector.

“We think electronic cigarettes will prove to be the most significant development in the history of the organised tobacco industry, stretching back some 200 years,” it said. “We expect consumers worldwide to migrate from tobacco smoking to e-cigarettes at an accelerating rate through 2020.

While the e-cigarette market is dwarfed by the cigarette market – it is currently $3 billion versus $700 billion – analysts says the e-cigarette market is growing while the traditional sector is shrinking – not least because it is killing its target market.

“In the longer term, the total combined market will shrink at a more rapid rate than most investors envisage as e-cigarettes wean smokers off tobacco, but do not attract new users into the overall category,” Canaccord Genuity said

What are electronic cigarettes? Put simply, they provide a nicotine “hit” through a vapour release but they have no tar, no tobacco, no carbon monoxide and none of the nasty additional chemicals found in traditional cigarettes. They don’t smell, and as passive smoking is not an issue, they can be used anywhere.

They can also save smokers money. How much? It depends on how much you smoke and the brand of e-cigarettes you go for. E-Lites launched in the Republic last February and that brand claims that smokers can save up to 75 per cent a year by making the switch – for someone who smokes a pack of 20 a day at a cost of €9.50 a time, that is a saving of €2,600.

E-lites sell a starter e-cigarette called the E30 – the equivalent of 30 cigarettes in newsagents – at a cost of €7.99, while two refills, said to be the equivalent of 80 cigarettes, costs €9.99.

“We do appreciate that it is better to quit smoking altogether but there are millions of smokers out there who are unwilling or unable to quit,” says Adrian Everitt, chief executive of E-Lites. His brand, he says, “offers a harm-reduction alternative and we know that we can give smokers a healthier, cheaper and more socially acceptable option to tobacco cigarettes”.

So it is healthier, cheaper and you are not treated like a pariah for doing it – it must have universal support then? Absolutely not.

The Irish Cancer Society stops short of recommending electronic cigarettes as an alternative to tobacco because it believes their safety and efficacy have not been established.

ICS spokeswoman Kathleen O’Meara says she understands the appeal but says it is a sector that needs to be regulated. “A case can be made for them, certainly, but there are downsides, including the renormalisation of cigarettes. We would be very suspicious when we see big tobacco companies buying up the e-cigarette companies.”

The authorities in the UK echo these concerns and are in the process of reclassifying them as a medicine. If they attract such a classification they will have to be authorised by the Irish Medicines Board before being sold in the Republic, and this will require a licence and a time delay, and the cost is likely to increase.

MEPs on the European Parliament’s environment, public health, and food safety committee are also considering proposals to amend the Tobacco Products Directive. The existing directive does not cover nicotine-containing products such as e-cigarettes, but their inclusion is now proposed in the scope of the revised directive.

Last week more than 1,000 former cigarette smokers from across the EU addressed an open letter to the committee’s chairman, Matthias Groote MEP.

“For between five and seven million people throughout the EU, e-cigarettes have and continue to provide a viable alternative to smoking tobacco cigarettes,” they wrote. “They have enabled them to leave smoking behind, either on a full- or part-time basis. These people, like us, are now smoking far fewer or no cigarettes.”

It pointed to US studies that showed a decline in cigarette sales which was “directly attributed to a rise in the use of e-cigarettes. If e-cigarettes are allowed to continue to flourish, just imagine how many fewer cigarettes will be sold and lives saved as millions more people like us switch from smoking tobacco cigarettes to using e-cigarettes”.

E-cigarettes put to the test: a smoker’s verdict
The first time I put the E-Lites to my lips I dropped it. This was because it’s heavier than a real one and years of habit had accustomed my mouth to the weight of Marlboro Lights. Ritual is important to a smoker. The searching for a light; the tapping of a fag on a box; the little thrill in tearing the cellophane and removing the foil from a new box; the rustling of cigarette papers; the aroma of a freshly opened pouch of tobacco. It’s a type of unconscious delayed gratification.

E-Lites have none of this. You remove the cap and smoke. Plain and simple. It says “you’re an addict and here’s your nicotine”. It is roughly the same size as a cigarette and produces a small stream of vapour, which helps. The green light at its tip, which lights up when you suck on it, is a bit disconcerting – why not red? I suspect it is to differentiate it from a real one. I did get some double-takes on the Dart when I produced it, until my fellow passengers realised it wasn’t tobacco.

Does it work? Yes, actually it does. You get to hold something in your fingers, an important aspect as anybody will know who has witnessed a colleague unconsciously mimicking smoking with a biro while staring at a screen (and chances are they stopped smoking a decade ago).

The taste is smooth and the nicotine hit instantaneous. It does help to cut down on smoking and is handy in non-smoking places. For those on long-haul flights or stuck in transit lounges it would be a god-send as it is far more satisfying than gum or patches. For those trying to cut down it is a help, but the fact you “smoke” an electronic cigarette means you are supporting the oral link at the heart of smoking. But all in all, it is a good product. CONN O’MIDHEACH

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