We have authored bills to restrict the use and sales of e-cigarettes — electronic devices used to inhale nicotine and other chemicals. A recent commentary defending e-cigarettes (“E-cigarette fright is uninformed,” April 1) was written by a representative for a tobacco trade group. It highlights one factor that’s been mostly missing from media coverage: the involvement of the tobacco industry in the e-cigarette debate.
The three biggest tobacco companies — Altria (Philip Morris), R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard — are investing heavily in e-cigarettes, creating their own product lines and buying up whole e-cigarette companies.
Lack of regulation has allowed e-cigarette companies to return to marketing techniques that were used for decades to sell tobacco — many of them now banned by law. TV commercials, billboards, cartoons, sexualized ads and celebrity endorsements are all being used again. Many of these techniques appeal to children and teenagers.
The companies are also using candy flavors such as “Bubble Gum,” “Hawaiian Punch,” “Fruit Loop” “Cinnamon Toast Crunch” — the list goes on and on. Adult e-cigarette users protest that sweet flavors are not designed to appeal to kids. As evidence, they point out that they like sweet flavors themselves. Well, no one is saying that adults don’t like candy flavors. What we do know is that children love them and that adding flavors is a tactic the tobacco industry has historically used to target kids.
This isn’t just a theory. The tobacco trial in the 1990s revealed many secret industry documents. One tobacco executive in the 1970s wrote that young people are “attracted to products with less tobacco taste” and suggested “borrowing/switching study data from the company which produces Life Savers.” This was an executive from Lorillard Tobacco — now the owner of Blu e-cigarettes. And the appeal of candy flavors for kids is backed up by science. Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 40 percent of middle and high school students who smoke report using flavored products.
The threat of the tobacco problem repeating itself through e-cigarettes is real. Our country has spent 50 years working to get smoking out of the public eye, and the tobacco industry has fought these initiatives every step of the way. They are engaged in the e-cigarette fight, too — their lobbyists have been at every hearing our bills have received, and they are working to persuade individual lawmakers every day. In testimony, a representative for e-cigarette retailers openly acknowledged the “odd allegiance” that exists between e-cigarettes and the classic tobacco industry.
The Senate version of the bill includes language treating e-cigarettes the same as conventional cigarettes in the context of Minnesota’s smoke-free law. It does not prevent any adult from using these devices in an attempt to reduce their smoking or to quit. It simply protects the rest of the public — the vast majority of the public — from sharing the unknown risk of an unregulated and untested nicotine-delivery product. Remember, addictive nicotine is the common link between e-cigarettes and deadly tobacco products.
Some with concerns over the Senate bill have suggested that it is unsympathetic to smokers. That is certainly not our intention. Smokers are not bad people, and neither are e-cigarette users. However, anyone who uses e-cigarettes should be aware that the tobacco industry has a history of addicting customers, while simultaneously making them feel empowered. Moving people off nicotine was never Big Tobacco’s goal — and it still isn’t.
The tobacco companies are betting on e-cigarettes in a big way. Lorillard-owned Blu already has a 50 percent market share, Reynolds has its own brand and Altria — the maker of Marlboros — will launch an e-cigarette this year. Lobbying by these companies in Minnesota has increased enormously over the past two years.
Make no mistake, Big Tobacco is back in Minnesota, trying to return us to the days when nicotine addiction was the norm. We shouldn’t be fooled again.
Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, is a member of the Minnesota House. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, is a member of the Minnesota Senate.