The Tobacco Industry Post the E-Cigarette Era
My thought quickly went into ‘Oh that is littering’. Mufulira was a very clean and neat place those days. I lived in Pala Avenue. A nice street! Generally, there were zero potholes in my neighborhood. Right across our house was a park, I went to sit on a bench and breath the freshly rained on grass. It helped me to ‘breath.’ To this day I am thankful I didn’t smoke.
I will admit, in my teens, there were times I thought smoking was cool but I had always viewed it as not for me. Thanks in part to family. I cannot count on one hand members of my family that smoke. Actually, I can’t name one member of my family that smokes. Marijuana? That is a different story!
Being a marketer and a data scientist, I got interested in the tobacco industry’s marketing and numbers over the years. In marketing, there is a famous mysterious character of the Marlboro man created by marketers. It is a marketing master class. And so, when this data came I was all too happy to learn a few things both from the marketing and the data perspectives. The data came in both text and numerical formats. Here is the story the tobacco industry.
At the beginning of the fifties, research was published showing a statistical link between smoking and lung cancer. At the same time the tobacco industry’s own research began to find carcinogens in smoke and began to confirm the relationship between smoking and cancer. This posed a serious problem for the industry: whether to admit to the health problems and try and find marketable solutions, or whether to basically deny everything.
In the face of mounting damning evidence against their product, the companies responded by creating doubt and controversy surrounding the health risks, whilst at the same time by responding to the growing public concern by putting filters on cigarettes and promising research into the health effects of smoking. They lulled the smoking public into a false sense of security, because, whilst this had the hallmarks of responsible companies acting in the public interest, it was actually a public relations strategy to buy time, at the expense of public health.
Many of the internal documents reveal that the industry was trying to look responsible in public, but privately was out to convince the public that smoking was not harmful.
Despite decades of evidence to the contrary, and millions of deaths caused by tobacco, the industry still largely maintains that the case against the cigarette is unproven.
In the early fifties, research was published showing a statistical link between smoking and lung cancer. At the same time the industry’s own research began to find carcinogens in smoke and started to confirm the relationship between smoking and cancer.
By the late fifties industry scientists had privately accepted the association between smoking and lung cancer, believing it to be one of cause and effect. Thirty years later, the majority of the industry still publicly denies the causation theory – with one exception – the US manufacturer Liggett, who broke ranks in 1997, much to the dismay of the other tobacco majors.
Beginning in the late fifties, and certainly by the mid-sixties, industry scientists were urging their executives to admit to the problem and solve it, arguing that there were commercial opportunities to exploit. Research was undertaken into the “safe cigarette”, but it soon fell under the influence of the lawyers, who successfully argued that a company could not produce a “safe” product, because this would imply that its other products were dangerous.
Beginning in the early sixties, industry documents discuss the addictive nature of nicotine, and recognize that the primary reason for people to continue smoking is nicotine addiction. The documents show that the industry believes nicotine to be a drug. “We are in the business of selling nicotine - an addictive drug” one lawyer wrote as far back as 1963. The documents are peppered with statements about the pharmacological or psychopharmacological effects of nicotine - its effect on the brain or central nervous system.
The first cigarette advertisements unashamedly pushed either reduced risk, health reassurance or even health “benefits” of smoking a specific product. By the forties, these were being criticized for being deceptive – and by the fifties the most successful advert of the modern era, the Marlboro Man, had been born.
In the sixties, manufacturers were using adverts to deny that their products caused cancer. The tobacco industry has repeatedly asserted that banning advertising would be an infringement of “commercial free speech”, but has never answered the criticism that much of its advertising was misleading.
The industry maintains that the only reason for advertising is to make current smokers switch brands, it does not affect overall consumption, nor entice youngsters to start smoking. As cigarettes adverts were banned on television, first in the UK and then in the US, companies looked to sponsorship of arts and sport to circumvent the bans. They have adopted the same line for sponsorship as advertising – it does not affect overall consumption.
By the late fifties, through the sixties and seventies, the industry scientists were grappling with trying to find a “safe cigarette”. The challenge was to reduce tar levels for health reasons, whilst maintaining similar or raised nicotine levels to keep customers hooked. Scientists struggled with the problem that, although they should reduce nicotine on health grounds, too little nicotine would help people wean themselves off cigarettes. By the late seventies, scientists were concerned that nicotine would have to be reduced so low that most smokers would stop smoking tobacco... but that threat never materialized.
By the mid-sixties, concern over the health effects of tobacco was so great that the tobacco companies begin looking at alternative nicotine delivery systems. Industry consultants and scientists warned that because of carcinogens produced by the burning of tobacco, it would never be possible to find a completely “safe” cigarette. By the seventies, the scientists believed that they could still partially solve the problem and that a “safe” cigarette was still the key to the industry’s future.
In the mid-sixties, companies began using ammonia in its cigarette production. Ammonia transforms nicotine from a bound state to a free one, where it can be more rapidly absorbed by the smoker. Ammonia technology is now widely used through the industry.
By the late sixties companies were consciously defining “health orientated” cigarettes which had reduced biological activity compared to those termed “health reassurance”, which were marketed to reassure the customer about their health claims but actually offered no significant health benefit.
By the early seventies companies were discussing ‘compensation’, whereby a smoker adjusts their smoking pattern in order to get a specific level of nicotine – therefore a smoker using a low tar product “compensates” for the low nicotine delivery by smoking more, an effect not replicated in the official machine measurements. By the end of the decade, industry researchers were even postulating that “the effect of switching to a low tar cigarette may be to increase, not decrease, the risks of smoking”.
By the mid-seventies, scientists at the US company Liggett had developed a cigarette with a significantly reduced health hazard – however the research was taken over by the lawyers and the product was never marketed.
In the early eighties, other company researchers were told they could never market a “safe cigarette” because that would imply that other cigarettes were dangerous. In the eighties and early nineties, Brown and Williamson even started examining growing genetically engineered tobacco designed to double the nicotine in the plant. Still, tobacco companies have repeatedly denied manipulating the levels of nicotine in cigarettes.
With smoking rates declining in the nineties or peaking in the mature markets of the west, the transnational cigarette companies have looked to expand their international operations, especially in Eastern Europe and Asia, but also Latin America and Africa. They exploited the opening up of countries that were once closed for trade because of political reasons, such as Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Africa but at alarming rates in Asia. Companies used economic muscle – and the threat of sanctions - to open up countries in Asia, such as Taiwan and Japan. They set out to exploit low smoking rates by women in many areas.
With smoking rates declining in the US & EU, they have recently introduced to the public as a product with the potential to shield smokers from the dangerous effects of Marlboros, e-cigarettes are marketed as a way to get your nicotine fix without inhaling all that lung-blackening smoke that’s been directly linked to cancer and heart disease.