The Current Landscape of Big Tobacco

Wrenny Collamer, Staffer

The nicotine industry has changed a lot since the days of Hollywood actors endorsing cigarette brands, but one thing still holds true: large and influential tobacco companies, like Marlboro, Newport and Camel are not going anywhere. Tobacco brands are leveraging their power to lock down control of the market. A new wave of younger nicotine users are making the companies behind the products as relevant to the consumer as ever and giving them a large sphere of influence.
However, many signs point to a new era of socially conscious tobacco companies. Efforts have been made to reverse the detrimental past advertising strategies used to sell tobacco, and it appears that a shift is happening in the tobacco industry. Tobacco advertisements are admitting the failure of companies to properly inform the public about health risks associated with their products, but this acknowledgement of their historic wrongs was really forced through lawsuits and was not voluntarily presented. Since the start of more transparent advertising, the number of smokers worldwide has steadily declined since the year 2000. If the world is actually experiencing a societal shift away from classic consumption of tobacco, where does it leave the companies that started it all?
With the arrival of new competition in the form of e-cigarettes, tobacco and cigarette companies are doing everything they can to adapt to an evolving industry. E-cigarettes have introduced a new market that tobacco companies are working to gain control over. Following the breakout success of e-cigarette companies like JUUL, most major tobacco companies pushed their own competitive e-cigarette products onto the market. R.J. Reynolds, the maker of Camel cigarettes, owns Vuse; and Imperial Brands, the maker of Winston cigarettes, owns Blu. Vuse and Blu are both e-cigarettes that have recently gained popularity.
By targeting new demographics with e-cigarettes, the nicotine industry is seeing an increase in growth. The tobacco industry has been able to solidify its hold on the teenage market, with teenage e-cigarette use doubling in the past two years. This growth caught the attention of policy makers and consumers, prompting new regulations in the U.S. and Europe, including a proposal by the FDA to restrict flavors of e-cigarettes and increase in the minimum age to purchase nicotine in Texas, along with government lawsuits against e-cigarette and vape producer JUUL for marketing to minors. An unexpected outbreak of acute lung damage from vaping has increased skepticism of JUUL and other e-cigarettes companies from consumers and legislators alike.
Tobacco companies have used their power to capitalize off of the discontent. Altria Group, which owns Marlboro, has a 35% stake in JUUL, and has placed one of its executives at the top of the corporate hierarchy at JUUL. Moreover, smaller players in the e-cigarette realm have been put out of business by the new regulations, giving larger tobacco companies, who can easily withstand these regulations, the opportunity to push their own e-cigarette brands to success. Consumer skepticism of e-cigarettes also has the ability to steer people back towards traditional combustible cigarettes. Through all of this e-cigarette legislation, tobacco companies have consolidated their control over the nicotine industry. Companies like Altria have been able to take control of lucrative e-cigarette markets and bring focus back to their cigarette business.

Current nicotine marketing also contradicts the idea of repentance in the tobacco industry. The marketing seen today still carries the same goal of pressuring consumers into buying and getting addicted to their products. Historically, their marketing has targeted vulnerable groups, with kid friendly characters like Joe Camel used during the 90’s in an effort to get kids interested in their products. JUUL’s clever and targeted advertising that uses fruity flavors and bright colors is unsettlingly similar to the manipulative advertising techniques used by tobacco companies in the past.
For decades, these companies were and are detrimental to the markets they continue to target and their desire for control over the consumer hasn’t gone away. Changes in the nicotine industry have allowed the largest tobacco corporations to become more powerful and get more people addicted to their poisonous products. It could be argued that targeting markets that show opportunity is just common business practice, but with such a product like nicotine, which is highly addictive, companies carry the responsibility to be as transparent as possible.
The products that consumers are seeing may be changing, but the way that Big Tobacco is capitalizing off vulnerable consumers remains constant. Tobacco companies retain control over what products are being sold to consumers and how they are being sold, and they continue to exploit their power. It’s hard to see a reality where a business that sells a product that harms its customers could ever be morally good.