New front in the tobacco wars

As the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General’s report on cancer and tobacco nears (Feb. 2014), it would be easy to think that the war on tobacco was over and that health was the victor.

Like most easy answers, that assumption would be wrong.  There is far too much money involved for the tobacco industry to give up.  And, for the first time in a long time, Big Tobacco might have a new weapon:  e-cigarettes.

On the front page of USA Today Wednesday (9/4/13) is an excellent discussion of the inroads that so-called “electronic cigarettes” are making.  According to USA Today, six percent of all adult Americans have tried them, including 21 percent of smokers.  Some are curious.  Some hope to use the e-cigs to help quit the real tobacco; some want the buzz provided by the vaporized nicotine without the public hassle of smoking.

Regardless, the big three tobacco companies are now in the game with both feet.  Smaller, independents that opened the door are being brushed aside with massive ad buys and marketing clout of Big Tobacco.

So, one might ask, what is the problem? Isn’t the e-cigarette an “engineered solution” to second-hand smoke?  Isn’t the straight shot of nicotine better than having one’s lungs filter out all the tars and other gunk?  Doesn’t a person have the right to do just about anything so long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others?  Yes, yes, and yes.

But questions still remain.  What are the subtle goals of e-cigarettes?  Hooking more people on nicotine, especially young targets?  The big suppliers say “no” but they still make e-cigs in attractive flavors like vanilla, cherry and other candies.  To whom are massive ad budgets being directed?

State and local governments are looking at reduced revenues as sales of traditional tobacco decline, so will they want to tax e-smokes?  What will the FDA say?  Nicotine is nicotine, regardless of whether it is smoked or “vaped” which is what the street has named the process of using e-cigarettes.  The FDA is unlikely to yield its control over tobacco–something it only recently secured.

For public relations practitioners, this could be a fertile field. The court of public opinion is going to be vital in the decisions to be made about nicotine, vapors and such.  Shaping of perceptions is just now starting.  Behavior is beginning to form.  By the end of this year, e-cigarette sales could approach $2 billion.  This pales before the $80 billion in tobacco sales, but $2 billion is a bone worth fighting for.

Some initial questions need to be addressed before jumping into the fray.  What are the ethics of this dilemma?  Do people have a right to jeopardize their health?  Do e-cigarettes harm the body like tobacco does?  Do companies have an obligation consider  consumer ignorance or apathy when formulating a sales strategy?  Is that going on here?

The major tobacco companies are ready.  Governments and health-care providers take note.

So many cases have legal component — what does that mean for PR?

When attorneys get involved in an organization’s business — either by suing or being sued by someone — what does that mean for stakeholder relations?  Does the entire organization switch into competitive, win-lose mode?  Does PR remain in the mix speaking out for the impact on the organization’s reputation and stakeholder relations?  It takes trust from management, a solid relationship with your legal team, a previous discussion of the pros and cons of any legal approach to the real bottom line.  How many cases in this book (and other case books) seem to balance on what is happening (or potential to happen) in the court of law that sways decisions and therefore outcomes — and not in a good way?