Cleverly, Big Tobacco is not making any statements of its own. It is simply relying on statements already made by anti-tobacco groups. For example, Big Tobacco stated: "Most public health experts agree that vaping is dangerous and you're better off if you keep smoking. We share their opinions."
To support its claims, Big Tobacco cited a Twitter headline from Clear Way Minnesota, which said: "Switching from vaping to smoking does reduce your carcinogens."
It would be absurd to think that Big Tobacco, in 2019, would have the gall to make such a preposterous claim -- that switching from vaping to smoking will improve a person's health. But Big Tobacco isn't directly making that claim. They are simply repeating statements made by supposedly anti-smoking organizations.
The statements being made by Big Tobacco are also being supported by policy decisions announced in recent months by city councils and boards of health throughout the country. For example, the city of San Francisco recently banned the sale of e-cigarettes, while allowing Marlboros to stay on the shelves. The town of Brookline, Massachusetts recently banned the sale of nearly all e-cigarettes, while allowing the majority of cigarette brands to remain on the shelves. Similar laws have been enacted by at least 26 other cities and towns.
The Rest of the Story had an exclusive opportunity to interview a spokesperson for Big Tobacco. Here is a transcript of the interview:
Siegel: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. I have to just start by asking: Did you ever dream that one day, groups that you thought were anti-smoking organizations would be promoting smoking over a much safer, fierce competitor to your combustible products?
Big Tobacco: Never. We really believed, deep in our hearts, that anti-smoking groups were our enemies. Our opponents. Naturally ... they were calling themselves anti-smoking groups. So we assumed that they would be doing everything in their power to discourage people from smoking and to emphasize the severe health effects of cigarette smoking, effects that even we now acknowledge. It never occurred to us that these "anti-smoking" groups would one day be promoting laws to pull all of our competition off the shelves and allow our most toxic products - our combustible cigarettes - to remain on the market. This is a dream come true. And frankly, some days I wake up and think that I am dreaming.
Siegel: For years, the anti-smoking groups complained and attacked you for not doing anything to make your products safer. They condemned you for not doing any research on how to make a safer product. Now that you have actually gotten into the business of selling a much safer product (e-cigarettes), they immediately take that product off the shelves and force you to only sell your most toxic combustible product. Does that make any sense to you?
Big Tobacco: Not at all. We had recently announced plans to start converting our U.S. business portfolio from our most toxic products - the combustibles - to a range of vaping products, which are much safer and we assumed over time would become more and more popular. Based on the popularity of vaping products and statistics on the unprecedented number of people who were quitting smoking using these alternative products, market analysts were predicting that within about two to three decades, we would literally cut cigarette consumption in half. So much for that! We can now go back to business as usual: we'll actually be adding more Marlboro rolling machines, something that wasn't in our long-range business plan because we made the apparently errant assumption that the anti-smoking groups would actually want to see a lowering of cigarette consumption.
Siegel: The City Attorney of San Francisco and the Board of Supervisors said that they were standing up to Big Tobacco when they enacted a law that bans the sale of all e-cigarettes. I assume that your stock prices must have tumbled since then. How are you coping with those huge financial losses?
Big Tobacco: Oh, no, that's not what happened at all. From the day the mayor of San Francisco signed the ordinance, our stock has risen from $47.35 to $49.54. A consensus of the major analysts now rate us as a "Strong Buy."
Siegel: Ok. Well we've talked about your competition from vaping products, which have now been taken off the market or severely restricted in many cities. Let's talk now about your competition from other cigarette brands. Although your Marlboro brand has always been #1, Newport has long been your chief competitor at #2. What are your plans to decrease that competition and further improve your market position?
Big Tobacco: We have none.
Siegel: You have none! How could you possibly have no plans to help fight off competition from Newport cigarettes?
Big Tobacco: Well, we don't have to make any plans because the anti-smoking groups are doing all of that work for us. You are not going to believe this, but our so-called enemies are promoting ordinances and state laws throughout the country that essentially ban the sale of Newport cigarettes while allowing Marlboro cigarettes to remain on the shelves, unfettered and untouched.
Siegel: Wait a second. You have me here. Why ban one cigarette brand but not another one that is equally dangerous?
Big Tobacco: They have somehow got it into their minds that Newport cigarettes - which have menthol - are a much greater threat to the public's health than Marlboro cigarettes ... [laughing] ... [laughing] ... [choking] ... So the Newports are coming off all the shelves and the Marlboros are staying put [laughing] ... And the irony is that for years, the anti-smoking groups attacked us for even insinuating that one cigarette brand was safer than another. Now those same groups are telling policy makers throughout the country that some cigarettes are safer than others. And we got the long end of the stick! [laughing almost out of control]. No pun intended.
Siegel: The "anti-smoking" groups are claiming that vaping is as dangerous as smoking. Now, how many people does smoking kill every year?
Big Tobacco: We no longer make up our own estimates. We now really on public health authorities. They estimate the number to be around 400,000.
Siegel: So I take it that vaping also kills around 400,000 people each year.
Big Tobacco: Not quite that many.
Siegel: Well then how many exactly?
Big Tobacco: So far zero.
Siegel: Well that doesn't seem possible. The anti-smoking groups, especially the American Lung Association, say that vaping causes popcorn lung. That is a rapidly progressive and fatal disease. With 12 million vapers in the United States, the product on the market for 13 years, and such a high risk of popcorn lung, there must be thousands of cases by now.
Big Tobacco: [laughing] ... Actually... [laughing] ... not a one!
Siegel: But a researcher at Harvard Medical School stated, and I'm quoting here, "Vaping can cause something called bronchiolitis obliterans, or popcorn lung."
Big Tobacco: [snicker] ... Not a one.
Siegel: Ok. But a physician and researcher from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine stated, and I'm again quoting here, "Yes, vaping can cause popcorn lung. The first thing to understand is that vape juice flavorings are not designed to be inhaled; they’re designed to be eaten. So these flavorings, when inhaled at higher temperatures, can be toxic to the lungs and cause damage, including the possibility of popcorn lung."
Big Tobacco: Not a one.
Siegel: And a specialist in substance abuse prevention stated, again I'm quoting, "The one thing we do know for sure in terms of long-term effects is that those who vape long term develop popcorn lung."
Big Tobacco: They're lying. Believe me, we know all about lying. We did it for years. And the anti-smoking groups attacked us for it. Even took us to federal court.
Siegel: Well that seems quite hypocritical of them.
Big Tobacco: If you say so.
Siegel: Let's talk for a minute about cancer risk. Tobacco smoke has more than 10,000 chemicals including more than 60 known human carcinogens. One carcinogen - formaldehyde - has been found to be present in some brands of e-cigarettes, although your own Mark Ten brand did not contain any detectable formaldehyde. How in your right mind could you possibly claim that vaping poses a greater carcinogenic risk than smoking?
Big Tobacco: Oh, simple. We're not the ones making that claim. That statement was made by researchers at Portland State University. And we are in no position to contest a conclusion made by academicians at a reputable university. If I recall correctly, and it's been a while, their exact statement was that "If we assume that inhaling formaldehyde-releasing agents carries the same risk per unit of formaldehyde as the risk associated with inhaling gaseous formaldehyde, then long-term vaping is associated with an incremental lifetime cancer risk of 4.2×10−3. This risk is 5 times as high ... or even 15 times as high ... as the risk associated with long-term smoking."
Siegel: Well if vaping poses a 15 times higher risk of cancer than long-term smoking, why would anyone in their right mind quit smoking by switching to vaping? And wouldn't ex-smokers who did quit smoking successfully by switching to vaping want to immediately go back to smoking?
Big Tobacco: That's precisely what the "anti-smoking" groups are telling them.
Siegel: Ok, one last question. The tobacco industry has a long history of reaching out to various groups to develop allies, or "friends" as you may call them. You had the Tobacco Institute, the National Smokers' Alliance, I can't recall the others. Who are your current allies?
Big Tobacco: There are a large number of groups that are working to promote laws that get rid of vaping products and leave retail stores with cigarettes as the only available nicotine product. The American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association come to mind.
Siegel: Whoa. I thought those were anti-smoking groups. In fact, I spent two decades working closely with all 3 of those groups to pass smoke-free bar and restaurant laws throughout the country.
Big Tobacco: Yeah we know. You're in our files. Well, we now refer to those groups as our Marketing Department ... [laughs] ... Heck, with enemies like that, we really don't need friends.
Siegel: Thank you for taking the time to provide me with this exclusive interview.
Original author: Michael Siegel