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Warnings War

If you're already bamboozled by conflicting claims about electronic cigarettes, don't look now but things may get worse before they get better. Observers have noted that the e-cig packages put out by Big Tobacco companies are now sporting lengthier and more ominous warnings, outdoing the warnings posted by independents, and in some cases even more dire-sounding that the warnings they place on deadly combustible cigarettes.

Says Marlboro maker Altria on its MarkTen package: “Nicotine is addictive and habit forming, and is very toxic by inhalation, in contact with the skin, or if swallowed.” No such warning appears on the Marlboro package. Cynthia Cabrera of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association (which includes no Big Tobacco members) calls the Altria warning "disingenuous", and notes "that [it] is not true of the doses in e-cigarettes."

“Is this part of a noble effort for the betterment of public health, or a cynical business strategy?" asks Robert Jackler of the medical school at Stanford. "I suspect the latter.” In fact, several observers have speculated that the Big Tobacco juggernauts are engaged in an attempt to curry favor with the FDA and the public, seeking an enhanced image that may afford them milder treatment from regulators in the future. Cabrera suspects that the cigarette makers simply want to look more credible and responsible than smaller companies like those SFATA represents.

But tobacco spokesperson William Phelps of NuMark, the Altria subsidiary that produces and distributes MarkTen avows that the warnings simply display “a goal to openly and honestly communicate about health effects.” And Stephanie Cordisco, who heads the R.J. Reynolds Vapor Company, through which Camels producer Reynolds sells its e-cig Vuse, told the Times that "“We’re here to make sure we can put this industry on the right side of history,” in effect admitting that the warnings constitute a reputation-salvaging move. "Orwellian," says Robert Proctor, who monitors the tobacco industry from the vantage point of the History Department at Stanford, adding “They do everything for legal reasons, otherwise they’d stop making the world’s deadliest consumer products.”

Says Jackler, “Why wouldn’t you warn about ‘very toxic’ nicotine on your cigarettes when you do so on e-cigarettes?”

Another possible reason for the oddly dire warnings, suggests Harvard tobacco specialist Allen Brandt, is that nobody reads them, and everybody knows that, especially everybody in Big Tobacco. Brandt thinks they can afford to post an ineffectual cautionary note that could forestall lawsuits in the future.

“It’s an incredibly effective and duplicitous practice in inventing additional new uncertainties and, at the same time, appearing to be cooperative,” says Brandt. It buys them time. It bought them 40 years with traditional tobacco products.”

One positive take-away from this article is the fact that journalists are waking up to the fact that the vaping supplies industry is not a unified group led by Big Tobacco (as detractors would have everyone believe), but includes an important segment, independent companies that sell no poisons, with interests quite at odds with those of Big Tobacco. The article takes Cabrera more seriously than the BT spokespersons, and shows a good understanding of her completely opposite point of view.