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An E-cig with Tobacco in it?!

If you've been wondering when the other shoe was going to drop, when Phillip Morris was going to get into the e-cigarette act like all the other Big Tobacco companies, wonder no longer. The Sister company of Virginia-owned international Marlboro maker Altria is not to content to merely buy up an e-cig company, like Lorillard, or develop its own brand, like RJ Reynolds, Phillip Morris International is doing both. This week it announced its purchase of UK-based Nicocigs, and also its plans to introduce an e-cig called the HeatStick. (Come to think of it, seems like it's about the eighth shoe to drop. Figures. Big Tobacco reminds us of certain eight-leggéd creatures.)

The product will have a couple of novel features, the foremost being that, unlike other e-cigs, it will contain tobacco. However the tobacco will not be burned, but simply heated. Apparently the heat will be sufficient to produce flavor, and PMI claims that it will be a more authentic and pleasing tobacco flavor than what is obtained from tobacco-flavored e-liquid. Or perhaps users will simply feel comforted by the fact that it is there. Sort of a placebo effect.

In any case, emboldened by the presence of real tobacco in the HeatStick, PMI feels authorized to brand it as a Marlboro, in contrast to all of the other e-cigarettes being marketed by Big Tobacco companies. Lorillard (Blu), RJ Reynolds (Vuse), PMI's parent company Altria (MarkTen, Green Smoke), British American Tobacco (Vype), and Imperial (Puritane), all brand their e-cigs with different names, sometimes even selling them through specially created subsidiaries – MarkTen through Altria subsidiary NuMark, while GreenSmoke remains a wholly owned subsidiary of Altria – Puritane through Imperial's Dutch subsidiary Fontem (which is also suing everybody else for infringing on a patent they didn't originate but simply bought as a patent troll). But the new PMI product will be the Marlboro HeatStick.

The new, tobacco-containing e-cig will be tried out first in Japan and Italy, according to an industry spokesperson at a presentation to investors this week, with further European marketing efforts scheduled for next year. The product will be manufactured in two plants in Italy. Since PMI and US-based former parent Altria have an agreement to share e-cig technologies, the product is likely to appear stateside eventually. 

Some industry insiders are reminded of a couple of products that were tried out by cigarette companies in the 90s, in response to the early wave of opposition to smoking. Phillip Morris USA (before splitting off the international branch) fielded a product called Accord, which heated a mini-cigarette that was inserted into a device shaped something like a pager. Users said they found it "clunky" and it did not succeed in the market, despite its claims to deliver a smoking experience with fewer health hazards. Another less-than-stellar marketing effort of Big Tobacco in the 90s was the Eclipse cigarette, rolled out by RJ Reynolds. In the Eclipse, one uses a lighter to ignite a carbon tip, which then heats tobacco without burning it. The Eclipse is still produced on a small scale, but not broadly marketed. Oddly enough, it is said to be quite a good seller in the smokes shop of the Reynolds company facility in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Given the uninspiring performance of these touted smoking substitutes of the 1990s, rolling them out again as competitors of the today's highly popular tank systems would seem a move that is iffy to say the least. Perhaps the Big Tobacco companies feel confident that their massive war chests are limitless enough to buy any market. Perhaps vapers will prove them wrong.