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Big Tobacco spin docs doing damage control

Bloomberg Business Week has reported a "slide" in the use of electronic cigarettes, and quotes market analysts to the effect that this means vapers must be returning to combustible tobacco cigarettes. Although this conjecture is supported by no evidence, and indeed flies in the face of statistics from other sources, the guess is emblazoned in the headline of the article, which reads: "E-cig Sales Slide as Regular Smokers Return to the Real Thing".

Coming as it does on the day after Lorillard divested Blu to Imperial, this would seem to be a classic case of spin doctoring. If the conjecture were true, one would expect to see statistics showing some reversal, or at least slowing, of the downward trend in percentages of smokers. There are no such statistics, quite the contrary.

The touted "slide" was a 2.9% drop in sales of "packaged electronic smoking devices" during the four week period ending May 18, and a decline double that rate for the month following, measured against the previous year. In other words, what dropped was sales of "cigalike" vaping devices (like Blu).

The article gives no alternative suggestion as to the reason for the drop in cigalike use, but simply concludes that it must indicate a return to tobacco. The "rising competition from generic vaporizers" is mentioned, without statistics, but not considered as a possible reason for the decline in cigalike sales. Of course, anybody versed in current reportage on vaping trends knows that the rise of vapor-tank systems has been the big news for several months now, widely touted by the most informed sources in the field. But the article states as fact the proposition that "efforts to lure regular smokers to e-cigs are faltering because most return to the real thing."

What saves this from being an outright lie is the notorious "dual use". By "most return to the real thing," what is meant is that 80% of vapers continue to smoke a few tobacco cigarettes. A recent study on vaping habits found that dual users typically go from 20 cigarettes per day to 4, a figure that nonetheless permits opponents to call their behavior "failed attempts to quit," and even to label e-cig use as a block to quitting.

The article states that "just" 26% of users (of cigalikes) return to the product. Actually, 26% is not considered a bad return customer rate, and of course in this instance we're only talking about a return to cigalikes, not to vaping. The statistic says nothing about vaping habits generally.

"There’s clearly a willingness to try the product," says Vivien Azer of Cowen & Co., "the problem is the technology is just not good enough... If it’s not good enough in terms of replacing a cigarette, smokers are going to stay with the cigarette." Azer's conjecture is a possible conclusion (with the proviso that the user is most likely going to "stay with the cigarette" only a few times per day), but a more plausible conclusion from the evidence presented is that the cigalike, the Blu, could be a steppingstone to a better technology, a vapor-tank system for instance. Azer ignores these complexities, however, and says "75% (sic -- can't Azer do simple subtraction? 100 minus 26 is 74.) of trials result in a rejection of the technology" (of the cigalike, that is).

Azer notes that e-cig users complain of low battery life and lack of power to create "billowy vapor clouds", and then turns right around to say that "refillable vaporizers... are larger and have more battery power, allowing them to create more vapor." Nonetheless, Azer and the article's author, Bloomberg's Duane Stanford (and editors Nick Turner, Robin Ajello, and Kevin Orland), make the opposite conclusion, deciding that the data signifies a return to tobacco rather than a progression to vapor-tanks.

Basically, the article makes a very good case for something that Big Tobacco fears, the probability that cigarette smoking will continue to slide (and cigalike e-cigs with them) as vapor-tank systems grow in popularity, and then proceeds to conclude the opposite, that vaping is a flash-in-the-pan which will soon pass, a conclusion that would make Big Tobacco very happy.

A textbook case of misleading spin amounting to outright falsehood. 

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