Around the world, sales volumes of combustible cigarettes are dropping. Meanwhile, growth rates are substantial across a range of tobacco harm reduction products. These trends suggest that some consumers are swapping out conventional cigarettes for newer products—a phenomenon that Jacob Grier refers to as the “creative destruction” of the cigarette industry.
Of course, it’s too soon to tell how Big Tobacco will fare. By analyzing trends in other sectors, however, we may gain some insight into what creative destruction in tobacco might look like.
The reign of big oil, for example, is currently being threatened by a confluence of new technologies, including long storage batteries, advances in self driving capabilities, and the growth of the shared economy. This change has been driven not just by technological innovation, but also by shifts in cultural values—namely, increasing concern about climate change.
This concern is also motivating some consumers to forgo meat, the production of which has been associated with environmental harm. In this sector, start-ups are drawing on advances in science to create laboratory-based alternatives that address consumer demands related to taste, texture, and flavor. The New York Times reports that some of these start-ups are now being supported by the largest producers of animal-derived meat products. These companies are well equipped to satisfy demand for meat alternatives, as they have the distribution systems and consumer insights required to reach scale. Yet, some start-ups are reluctant to engage with large meat producers, worried that their dirty legacy will corrupt the purity of the mission. The situation is not much different in the tobacco sector.
Large tobacco companies control about one quarter of the fragmented global e-cigarette market, mainly through acquisition. There now exists a divergence in strategies across tobacco companies, in what historically has been considered by many to be a monolithic industry. What can be learned about transformations in the motor vehicle, meat, and other sectors that applies to ending the sale of combustible tobacco? One common theme is that consumers value superior products over inferior ones. A second is that when change occurs, it often happens much more rapidly than expected.
There are modern day luddites who oppose new technology because it’s new. Others fear untoward effects will outweigh benefits. Their concerns deserve careful attention. Smart regulatory oversight and enforcement, as well as widespread utilization of modern science and technology principles will be critical factors as we navigate this new terrain. Bans and fearmongering, however, are not sustainable solutions.
Writing in Tobacco Control, Ruth Malone calls for the phasing out of cigarettes. We agree. And we believe that technology disruption and innovation offer a real chance to accomplish what she describes. Yet, unlike Malone, we believe that to fully take advantage of the current momentum, we must engage with the companies that have the most to win or lose. Leading tobacco companies’ research on alternatives to cigarettes (and toxic smokeless tobacco products) should be shared widely across the public sector—not shunned simply on the basis of who executed or funded the research.
Malone is correct to call out tobacco companies for past and continued actions that undermine progress. Our response is to measure and report on the industry’s actions in a transparent manner. The Foundation is also monitoring consumer perceptions via global consumer polls, and supporting smoking cessation and harm reduction research. Finally, we are developing early warning systems that will flag indicators associated with health symptoms and adverse events.
Energy, food, and large agricultural companies have all funded initiatives that stymie efforts to end the massive harms their products cause—including climate change and possible species extinction. Yet, academia, governments, investors, and nonprofits continue to work with these sectors to achieve solutions, even as they call out unacceptable practices. We believe a similar approach is needed to end the harm caused by tobacco. The stakes are simply too high to not engage with parties that can expedite live-saving solutions.
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