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Now it’s the great vape conspiracy

Originally Posted on Spectator Australia by Jack Stanton on 23rd September 2021 

The ongoing conflation of vaping and tobacco industry e-cigarettes is an intentional misdirection and a dangerous one. 

The strongest observation John Safran makes in his book Puff Piece is that the tobacco giant Philip Morris International has bastardised language to reinvent itself as a health and wellness tech start-up. An example of such a linguistic contortion is PMI’s mission to ‘unsmoke the world’, with company CEO Jacek Olczak claiming their “objective is to fully leave cigarettes behind to one day become a smoke-free company.” 

Intrigued by the absurdity of a leading tobacco company pledging to end smoking, Safran’s Puff investigates Philip Morris International’s efforts to influence Australia’s regulatory environment to introduce their next generation of tobacco devices, such as the much-maligned IQOS. Overlaid with Safran’s comedic asides, Puff Piece bears all the traits of his previous work: he weasels himself into a PMI shareholder’s meeting by buying shares in the company; hunts down e-cigarette representatives at conventions in New Zealand; and has philosophical chats with Father Bob and a Rabbi, asking whether employees of PMI are going to hell. (They aren’t.)  

Entering the e-cigarette marketplace, PMI has hedged its bets on the IQOS device. The IQOS is an e-cigarette that heats tobacco and releases a nicotine-containing tobacco aerosol, instead of burning the tobacco like a combustible cigarette. The important distinction between IQOS and other e-cigarette products is that vapes do not use tobacco but instead rely on an e-liquid, a combination of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, flavourings, and nicotine, which is heated by a metal coil and then inhaled as vapour. While PMI claims the IQOS is less toxic than cigarettes, a scholarly journal review found that PMI’s results from IQOS research did not support its own claim. Worse than that, the research found that “While IQOS may expose users to lower levels of some toxicants than cigarettes, they also expose users to higher levels of other toxicants.”  

As a devout Scrabble player a dictionary disciple (like myself), Safran’s semantic pedantry pays off: throughout his investigation, he discovers that, despite PMI’s claims to the contrary, heated tobacco still produces carcinogens, and the conflation of vapes and heated tobacco products as ‘e-cigarettes’ is a strategic one. By inventing new words—essentially nonsense—such as ‘unsmoke’, PMI perform a “great misdirection” by nudging carcinogens and tar to the periphery. Changing the language around smoking allows PMI to frame the debate as smoke vs non-smoke, rather than harmful vs non-harmful (a battle they are doomed to lose). At one point in the book Safran confronts PMI representatives with evidence of tar in his IQOS device, and he is told it’s not tar but rather “Nicotine Free Dry Particulate Matter”. Which is basically a made-up euphemism for tar. The nomenclature coming out of PMI resembles an explosion in a word factory.  

PMI is faced with incredulity, and rightfully so. The obvious counterargument: they can’t be trusted. They have scant credibility among the public and policymakers. Historically, of course, the tobacco industry has an abysmal reputation for bad science, obfuscation of compromising research, meddling with politics, inhumane treatment of workers, and false claims of healthier alternatives. Not to mention that the present-day tobacco giants are standing on the shoulders of black slaves who were exploited at tobacco plantations in Virginia and other parts of America.  

Another issue of credibility is that PMI’s strategy projects a positive image, misdirecting from their primary business of selling cigarettes. Philip Morris rebranded before when its parent company changed to Altria in 2003. Linguist Steven Pinker argues in The Stuff of Thought that Altria is an example of sound symbolism, or phonoesthia, meaning that certain sounds are associated with certain meanings. Pinker argues that Altria attempted to “switch its image from bad people who sell addictive carcinogens to a place or state marked by altruism and other lofty values.”  

So history repeats: under the aegis of philanthropy, PMI has recreated itself as pioneering a smoke-free future. Doing so, the company distances itself from its tarnished reputation as a tobacco company and reassures stakeholders that their investment is working toward a smoke-free future. Rather than supporting purveyors of carcinogens, shareholders can be coaxed by rhetoric advocating that PMI has developed an ethical conscience. The ingenious call-to-action is that the more money invested equals the sooner they can phase out smoking. PMI is now trying for a gestalt switch: they believe in a smoke-free future. Historicise as hard as you want, PMI, but the hypocrisy, impossible to overcome, is the cigarette factories are business as usual.  

Although Safran provides rudimentary distinctions between vaping and heated tobacco products, Puff Piece does not give due diligence to the pro-vaping advocates. When Safran discovers that “Philip Morris did orchestrate an Australian senate, using the vaping industry as cover,” he concludes that “although both sides have claimed otherwise, it appears Philip Morris and vaping have been in bed together.” Surely, I am not alone in thinking pro-vapers, rather than wilfully aligned with PMI, are damaged by their mutual interest in overtaking legislation. PMI’s involvement is parasitical; they conceal themselves in a Trojan Horse and hope the vape activists will pave the way for IQOS by softening e-cigarette regulation. Many vape activists in Puff Piece are portrayed as having made a Faustian bargain with Philip ‘Mephistopheles’ International, whereas there is a fundamental ideological difference that remains unearthed: many vapers transition away from smoking to give up tobacco.  

 In a survey I conducted with over seventy Australian vapers, 95% reported “massive health gains”, including better energy, better pulmonary health, no more shortness of breath, no carbon monoxide in the blood. My survey participants were all ex-smokers, most in the age bracket of 35-60, who used vaping to transition out of smoking. Anecdotally, at least, ex-smokers who move to vaping feel positive about their change. One participant replies, “I know in detail the risks associated with smoking and have felt the detrimental physical health issues like reduced lung capacity and frequent respiratory illnesses. Although not risk-free, vaping has shown in short term studies to be a better alternative and many, myself included, have experienced massive health gains.” 

Serendipitously, I have been researching e-cigarettes and the moral panic stirred by Australia’s media, and what I found is that while some experts believe vaping may accelerate smoking’s obsolescence in society, others fear it may renormalise smoking habits and readdict the next generation to nicotine. For Health Minister Greg Hunt and the Therapeutic Goods Association, all e-cigarettes are anathema. This position coheres with Australia’s long-standing draconian tobacco laws, including plain packaging, the excise or ‘sin’ tax, and the prescription-only model for e-cigarettes. The Aussie frustration derives from this stance being at odds with the decisions to regulate e-cigarettes as a consumer good in countries such as U.S.A, Canada, New Zealand, Russia, U.K, and the European Union. 

Regulatory inertia has been exploited to form a thriving black market across Australia. Disposable vapes are available to purchase at dubious tobacconists and corner stores, as well as online through Facebook Marketplace (search brands iGet and HQD to see for yourself). A key criticism of vaping is that they have Willy Wonkafied nicotine, thus appealing to youth and adolescents. Headlines such as ‘Kids buying vape products as easily as lollies’, Principals sound alarms as students take up vaping, become black market ‘dealers’’, and ‘Aquinas College installs vape detectors in toilets’, have puffed up moral outrage.  

But if vaping—that is, vapes that use an e-liquid, not tobacco—are proven to be healthier than traditional cigarettes, then isn’t diverting smokers onto vaping something to be encouraged? Does it not align with broader harm minimisation policies? In an article called ‘Ten perverse intellectual contortions: a guide to the sophistry of anti-vaping activists’, vocal vape campaigner Clive Bates argues that the Australian Government has a duty of care to offer e-cigarettes as a pathway out of smoking. He believes there is an “ethical imperative to link painfully high taxes to quitting smoking by any means possible.” Bates’s proposition is thus: “If the government raises the price of a product that the same government says is “addictive” and that quitting “can be one of the most difficult, yet rewarding things a person can do”, then it has a clear ethical obligation to make quitting smoking as easy as possible and certainly not to place bureaucratic barriers in the way” (original emphasis).  

For Bates, vaping is so maligned by Australia’s public health professionals because it requires a different paradigm. Rather than smoking cessation, vaping replaces “one pleasure with another at greatly reduced risk.” In a recent interview I had with Dr Colin Mendelsohn, a smoking cessation specialist who appears in nearly every news report about e-cigarettes, he expressed a simple mantra: “opposing vaping perpetuates smoking”. More specifically, Mendelsohn believes tobacco control warriors have directed their crusade against Big Tobacco toward the vaping market. “Since tobacco companies have entered the vaping market, the focus has shifted to attack vaping in order to punish the unscrupulous tobacco industry, even though it only controls a small share of the market,” he tells me. 

Both Mendelshon and Bates refute the gateway hypothesis, that vaping leads to smoking uptake. They refer to the rapid decline of U.S. smoking rates that coincides with the rise of e-cigarettes and propose the common liability model as more sophisticated than the gateway effect. In contrast to the gateway, which scrutinises the beginning of nicotine use, common liability considers addictions in light of biobehavioural characteristics, positing “that there is a shared underlying predisposition to experiment with risky behaviours such as vaping and cigarette smoking, and others such as illicit drug use.”  

On the other hand, tobacco control experts such as Dr Becky Freeman do not believe e-cigarettes should be available as consumer goods bought in grocery stores and tobacconists. Freeman supports the total phasing out of retail sale of combustible tobacco products, a vision she supposedly shares with PMI, at least in theory. The problem with this ivory-tower thinking is, legal or otherwise, e-cigarettes are circulating Australia’s lungs. And as current smokers are further demonised by social stigma, and their options for transitioning to vaping are restricted, Dr Mendolsohn’s view that “opposing vaping perpetuates smoking” starts to ring true. The real losers are the grassroots vape campaigners, and current smokers who remain unexposed or uninformed about the e-cigarette option.  

Safran’s Puff Piece is not a portrait of vaping activism. The debate should be framed as a tripartite Venn diagram, with vapers, the tobacco industry, and those against e-cigarettes all sharing overlaps in mission and ideology, while also harbouring their differences. Seen this way, PMI (allegedly so) shares a vision with their ideological nemeses: end smoking. Maybe it is mere puffery, as Safran suggests. But considering the sincerity with which Australian prohibition of smoking is being pursued in the twenty-first century, it is interesting that e-cigarettes are treated with hostility, rather than seen as another tool in tobacco control’s arsenal.

Vaping advocacy exists in Safran’s book as yet another smokescreen for PMI. But by focusing on unearthing the global PMI conspiracy, Safran glosses over the human element behind the tobacco industries’ commandeering of the vaping campaign.  

Jack Cameron Stanton is a writer and critic from Sydney. 

Originally Posted on Spectator Australia by Jack Stanton on 23rd September 2021