Vape wars: Children in the sights of tobacco giants

It seems unlikely that the British government has any real intention of stopping the corporate dope-pedlars in their tracks.

Proletarian writers

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Despite all their claims to want to ‘wipe out smoking’ and ‘help addicts quit’, the bright plastic packaging and fruity flavours of many vapes, and their positioning next to sugary sweets and snacks in shops, makes it clear that the market most aggressively targeted by tobacco monopolies is working-class children – the addicts of the future.

Proletarian writers

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Big Tobacco is spending millions to ensure it doesn’t lose the British market for nicotine when the government introduces a planned ban that, by adding a year, every year, to the age at which an individual is able legally buy tobacco products, will effectively mean that nobody currently under the age of 14 will never be able to buy cigarettes legally.

The aim of the tobacco giants is to ensure that ‘alternative nicotine products’ (ANPs) won’t be included in the ban, despite the fact that it is perfectly obvious that they are also very bad for people’s health.

It seems probable that e-cigarettes (or vapes, as they are more commonly known) won’t escape completely unscathed from plans to protect children (a result of public pressure, not a sudden moral fortitude on the part of the government). Measures under discussion that could preventing kids from becoming vape users include restricting advertising, punishing retailers, and (most controversial of all) a ban on the sweet or fruity flavours that are added to e-liquids (vape juice).

Lobbying by any other name

To combat this interference in their ability to extract profits at the cost of workers’ health, the tobacco monopolies decades of experience in lying, tricking, bribing and intimidating in order to maintain the market for tobacco products despite all the evidence that cigarette smoking is deadly.

A recent Times investigation revealed that big tobacco companies have funded research papers that question the risks of youth vaping. These papers have then been cited as evidence in government consultation responses by tobacco-funded campaign groups. (Revealed: how tobacco giants are bankrolling secret pro-vaping campaign by Billy Kenber, 14 December 2023)

Tobacco giant British American Tobacco (BAT), for example, runs a supposedly ‘grassroots’ campaign that presents itself as the voice of ordinary vape users and which seeks to influence policy-makers, despite the terms of a global treaty that came into effect in 2005 which bans tobacco firms from interacting with government officials and from being involved in any health-related education.

This ‘campaign group’, the World Vapers Alliance (WVA), describes itself on its slick website as a group that “amplifies the voices of passionate vapers around the world and empowers them to make a difference in their communities” beneath the logo of a defiantly-raised fist clutching a vape. It may use high-flown expressions and steal working-class symbols, but make no mistake; neither our nor our communities’ interests are on the WVA’s list of priorities.

The main focus of this corporate-backed ‘campaign’ is on keeping the various flavours of vapes – the sweet and fruity flavours that increase marketability, especially to children – under the pretext of ‘freedom to choose’. Freedom to sell, to any and all, regardless of harm would be a more honest way of expressing the demand of the corporate executives directing the campaign’s efforts.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the ‘scientific papers’ cited as evidence in WVA’s efforts to support ‘passionate vapers’ are funded by another tobacco giant: Phillips Morris International (PMI).

The power of the lobby does not stop there. Every article on the Times website dealing with this issue at present is preceded by the caveat: “This article is the subject of a legal complaint by Philip Morris International Inc.”

Reinventing the wheel

This use of astroturfed (artificial grassroots) groups and movements is nothing new. Capitalism has a history of creating or co-opting apparently ‘anti-corporate’ and ‘anti-capitalist’ groups in order to mislead, divide and influence the working class against its own interests.

Another such group, ‘Forest’, describes itself as “Voice and friend of the smoker” and carries articles with titles like “Forest slams ‘punitive’ attack on working-class smokers” and “Banning sale of cigarettes to future generations ‘obscene’”. Knight of the realm Sir Ronald Harwood is a supporter of the campaign and says: “Tobacco is not an illegal substance, yet the government is persecuting a minority. I think that’s a disgrace in a social democracy.”

Appeals to democracy and a sudden concern for ‘minorities’ (are we now to be classed by our bad habits?) aside, quite how protecting workers’ health is an ‘attack’ and preventing today’s children from getting hooked on provably fatal tobacco smoking is ‘obscene’ makes no sense until you scroll down to the bottom of the site and read: “Disclaimer: Forest is supported by Imperial Tobacco Limited and Gallaher Limited (a member of the Japan Tobacco Group of Companies).”

The power of monopoly

The creators of ‘Forest’, Imperial Tobacco Limited (now renamed ‘Imperial Brands’) and Japan Tobacco Group (which purchased British-based Gallaher for £9.7bn in 2007), control between them nearly 90 percent of the British cigarette market and have extensive plans to diversify into alternative nicotine products (ANPs).

It may seem contradictory that tobacco companies are championing their replacements. But that is only the form; the content is consistent! Most of the industrial processes used in the manufacture of cigarettes (the growth, harvest and transport of tobacco leaf) remain the same when creating ANPs. The tobacco giants are really just trying to maintain business as usual, albeit wrapped in new, shiny eye-catching packaging, and surrounded by slogans of ‘healthy alternatives’ and a feigned concern for the consumers’ wellbeing.

With smoking levels consistently reducing year on year in Britain, the cigarette market is disappearing. But with huge productive forces at their disposable, and bound by the iron laws of capitalism (the need to continue using these means of production to create profits), the tobacco giants are bound to use every means at their disposal to safeguard and extend their market. Or, when that finally fails, to create new ones.

The tobacco lobby has long been one of the biggest and most influential groups manipulating governments and populations in the service of profit. So much so that a strategy has been named after its activities: the ‘tobacco industry playbook’. This describes the approach devised by the tobacco industry in the 1950s to protect revenues in the face of mounting evidence showing the links between tobacco smoke and serious illnesses, primarily cancer.

This strategy called for the creation of rival scientific research that contradicted the overwhelming evidence of smoking being the cause of much illness and early death, extensive lobbying and intimidation of governments, and the creation of fronts to disguise industry messaging and present it as coming ‘from the people’.

This playbook became less useful and less easy to use (openly at any rate) in the wake of the 2005 ban on tobacco advertising and influencing, but it has found new life, with a little tweaking, in the fast-growing ANPs market.

An updated playbook

Donations are legal lobbying, and the latest Electoral Commission records shows that in May 2023 the governing Tory party  accepted a £350,000 donation from Supreme 8 Ltd, a company that produces colourful vapes, despite government rhetoric about cracking down on e-cigarette products aimed at children.

Papers have been commissioned questioning the harm caused by vaping in general, and youth vaping in particular, by Phillip Morris International (PMI). PMI also set up a training and consultancy firm that has an NHS doctor on its board. She and her husband have been paid millions to provide ‘training’ to hundreds of other NHS doctors in a bid to brand vaping as a ‘healthy alternative’ to smoking.

Public Health England paid £40,000 for a series of YouTube videos co-produced by the New Nicotine Alliance (NNA) and held numerous meetings with the group, despite its ties to PMI. The NHS has been persuaded to embed vaping as a key tool in its campaign to combat smoking, up to and including giving out free vapes and even opening vape shops inside hospitals and larger clinics.

“Tobacco companies now present themselves as part of the solution to ending cigarette smoking, and hope this will allow them to reopen doors to influencing government policies, even as they continue to manufacture and sell billions of cigarettes.

“E-cigarette campaigners are particularly focused on the UK because authorities have enthusiastically adopted pro-vaping policies, viewing it as a key tool for smokers to quit. Smoking cessation clinics hand out free vapes and some hospitals have vaping shops on their premises.

“By contrast, other countries have banned flavours or made vapes a prescription-only product. The World Health Organisation opposes their use, saying they are ‘undoubtedly harmful’ and unproven as a method of giving up cigarettes.

“The UK’s approach has been criticised by some public health experts who argued that it minimised the risk of non-smokers, including young people, taking up e-cigarettes and becoming addicted to nicotine. They have warned of possible damaging health effects on vapers’ lungs and cardiovascular systems and the unknown long-term consequences of vaping.” (The Times, ibid)

According to Mark Hurley, a spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids: “Tobacco companies like Philip Morris and British American Tobacco have a long history of funding front groups to manipulate the public and advance their business interests at the expense of public health.

“Tobacco companies have funded ‘research’ that claimed the science was still out on the health impacts of smoking, among other ludicrous findings over the years. After decades of recycling this tactic, it’s shameful that tobacco companies still think they can get away with it.

“Groups like the Philip Morris-funded ‘Foundation for a Smoke-Free World’ are used to undermine lifesaving public health laws around the world and to enable tobacco companies to insert themselves into public health policy.

“Far from being part of the solution, tobacco companies like British American Tobacco and Philip Morris are the main cause of the global tobacco epidemic that kills millions of people each year – full stop. If an organisation or research is being funded by a tobacco company, you can trust one thing only: that the aim is to further the interests of a deadly industry.” (Cited in The Times, ibid)

Targeting children

In the heyday of smoking, actors and actresses were recruited to promote the habit, conflating their beauty, success and charisma with the act of lighting up. Today, vaping and nicotine pouch advertising are being supported by the celebrities of our time: social media influencers.

Tobacco firms are giving big influencers cash, free products and channel-boosting help if they will promote vaping and nicotine pouch usage as cool, exciting and fun. This is despite rules banning the promotion of nicotine products via platforms where more than 75 percent of the userbase is under 18.

Of course, the watchdogs arrive late and bark unconvincingly – after the damage has been done.

Meanwhile, vapes are increasingly produced in a range of shiny colours, funky designs and sweet flavours to appeal to young people – the addicts of the future.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has said it is “deeply concerned” about the long-term health impact of e-cigarettes on “young lungs, hearts and brains”, while the World Health Organisation (WHO) has link vaping (unsurprisingly) to heart and lung diseases.

Disposable vapes (many of which are made and sold illegally in order to evade regulations around selling to children) tested after being confiscated in the classroom have been found to contain dangerous levels of heavy metals: lead – 2.4 times the stipulated safe exposure level, nickel – 9.6 times the safe level, and chromium – 6.6 times the safe level.

Vapes are becoming increasingly popular amongst secondary school students, with an estimated one in four 11 to 17 year olds vaping and some so addicted that they are skipping classes to meet their cravings. The Times investigation cites the case of a 12-year-old asthmatic girl who ended up in a medically-induced coma after suffering a collapsed lung as a result of her vaping habit.

Public pressure has forced the government to make some effort to combat the rapid rise in childhood vaping by talking about restricting flavouring and bringing packaging in line with that currently used for cigarettes. Whether our ministers will ultimately be able to ignore the bags of money, incentives and pressure from big tobacco remains to be seen.

Fear of effective action

The tobacco monopolies spend a large portion of their resources to try to avoid these very restrictions, and a recent case study vividly illustrates why that is.

RLX technology is a China-based company producing vaping products, which was growing stratospherically and hoping to take advantage of the enormous market of 308 million Chinese smokers.

Having captured only 2 percent of this market, the company’s revenues catapulted from $19m in 2018 to £585m in 2020. Within three years, RLX had become the biggest vaping brand in China, and four of its directors were billionaires. The prospects looked rosy for RLX’s aim of making even more massive profits by hooking an ever-growing section of the population to its products.

But then in stepped the Chinese government. In March 2021, state regulators announced plans to bring vaping companies under the control of the State Tobacco Monopoly Authority, which would set prices and sales limits, ringfence profits to deal with any health issues arising from use, and introduce rules to limit flavours only to tobacco and to ban tank-based vapes (allowing authorities to set nicotine dosage at the state level).

Within 55 hours of the measures being announced, RLX’s shares fell by 55 percent. When the laws came into force a year later, the shares fell by another 20 percent. Companies in this sector around the world would not have missed this lesson; when the state steps in to curtail business in the interests of public health, profits suffer.

Trading health for wealth

The latest campaigns around vaping, like the campaigns around tobacco and sugar in the past, once again make it clear that, while we live under the capitalist system of production for profit, we will continue to find that products which do real harm are promoted, will continue to be told by health services that such products are no problem, and continue to see our children targeted as a ‘market’, despite the particular vulnerability of their developing bodies and impressionable minds.

If the smoking rate fall were to continue as it has been (many decades later than should have been the case), we could very well live to see an essentially smoke-free Britain. Education on the health impacts of smoking, the banning of cigarettes from public spaces, and the ban on tobacco advertising had belatedly proven to be capable of freeing British workers from a harmful and expensive addiction.

A lucrative alternative wasn’t and isn’t required.

Without that alternative, hundreds of billions’ worth of raw materials, machines and land – a huge amount of wealth – would stop being capital; would be forced to sit idle. But within the present economic system, the obvious answer of using the land to grow food and transforming the factories to some useful purpose is simply not on the cards.

Like the combustion-powered car going electric, or the WW2 bomb-making equipment being remastered to stamp sweets for children or produce nitrates for farming, when forces of production become so huge, they acquire a power that cannot be denied. Through the avatars of capital, the capitalists, outmoded products are kept in production and markets are forcibly created – often at the expense of the consumers; the workers.

Those who wish to force this destructive economic system to run more logically are doomed to fail in their attempts – as they have done for 200 years and more. Production for profit has its own logic that human beings are powerless to change – a logic that demands endless expansion of production and the relentless acquisition and concentration of surplus labour (profit) by any means.

An alternative does exist, however, and it can be built in Britain. A socialist economy in which production is planned around human logic; the logic that recognises real needs and works to fulfil them.