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Once and Future Reynolds CEO Pumped about Vuse

Revolving doors are whirling in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Not only are the structures of corporate ownership about to change at Reynolds American and Lorillard, but a former company head is coming back to assume control once again, and electronic cigarettes seem to be at the center of the changing scene.

Susan Cameron stepped down as CEO of Reynolds American in 2011, and left the board soon after, planning to spend more time with her family. Daniel Delen, who has watched the store since then, is now leaving, and Cameron is returning, full of excitement about the vaping product. "I think it is spectacular!" she enthused, as quoted in the Winston-Salem Journal.

Cameron claims that she was a user of the company's "Eclipse" brand of cigarettes, and on her watch she encouraged a strategy called "Transforming Tobacco", which focused "on products to reduce harm and opportunities to offer transformative products." She now says that the chance "reinforce that strategy... played a role in my coming back."

Eclipse is a vapor-producing, low-tobacco cigarette (non-electronic), which does burn but leaves no ash, and has been presented as a harm-reduction combustible cigarette. The company introduced the product in 1994, when anti-smoking campaigns were in their infancy, before the landmark "National Tobacco Settlement" of 1998, when Big Tobacco accepted huge fines and curtailment of advertising in return for a cap on liability. The American Cancer Society has called for removal of the product from the market, arguing that it gives a false sense of security, not being as risk-free as company marketing suggests. Reynolds has countered that they never claimed it was "safe", only safer.

The electronic cigarette Vuse was developed by Reynolds while Cameron was gone, after rival Lorillard had bought Blu Electronic Cigarettes and propelled the brand to the forefront of the burgeoning e-cigarette market. Other Big Tobacco companies were quick to follow Lorillard's lead and develop their own e-cig brands in house, such as Vuse and Altria's Mark Ten, or else to imitate Lorillard's action more precisely by the purchase of an independent e-cigarette firm. With Reynolds now contemplating the purchase of Lorillard, Cameron may find herself overseeing the marketing of not one but two electronic cigarette brands.

Cameron was coaxed back out of retirement because of "the extraordinary place and time in which this company finds itself... on the brink of a change that has the potential to transform" the tobacco industry. It was the chance "to bring game-changing products" into play that persuaded her to return. "At the end of the day, how could I say 'no' to an opportunity like that?"

She intimates that test markets in Colorado and elsewhere have exceeded expectations. "We've got a winner on our hands," the CEO exults. Indeed so, but one with powerful competitors, some of them produced by non-tobacco companies.