The War on Drugs has been criticized by many, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's war on tobacco has been decidedly successful.
The war on tobacco gains steam...
Since 1964, when a surgeon general's report first linked smoking tobacco to a higher risk of heart disease and lung cancer, the CDC has been steadily working to lower adult tobacco use rates -- and adult smoking rates have fallen precipitously for five decades. In the mid-1960s, around 42% of adults aged 18 and up were smoking cigarettes. As of 2014, based on the latest data from the CDC, just 40 million U.S. adults (or 16.8% of the population) were current cigarette users.
A drop in tobacco usage could wind up leading to a reduction in the incidence of certain cancer types, and it may cut down on the development of other chronic diseases like COPD, asthma, and heart disease. This is all good news.
...and the tobacco industry fights back
However, for the tobacco industry, this "war" has brought serious hardship. With few exceptions, tobacco producers have witnessed cigarette volumes falling on a year-over-year basis. The only reason U.S. tobacco giants like Altria (NYSE:MO) and Reynolds American (NYSE: RAI) have remained healthfully profitable is because of cost cuts and product price increases.
Tobacco giants benefit from consumers' addiction to tobacco, allowing them to boost prices on an as-needed basis. Additionally, Altria and Reynolds American wound up laying off 15% and 10% of their respective workforces years prior in order to lower their expenses. In January, Altria announced another round of layoffs that will eliminate 5% of its workforce (490 jobs).
Tobacco companies aren't taking their shrinking consumer pool lying down, though. They're bringing new and innovative solutions to market that could appeal to a broader audience. Arguably the most intriguing alternative is electronic cigarettes.
Electronic cigarettes work by heating a flavored liquid solution that contains nicotine, turning it into a vapor that the user then inhales. Touted as safer than inhaling cigarette smoke, electronic cigarettes are claimed to be an effective tool consumers can use to break their addiction to cigarettes (although no tobacco producer has submitted an application to the Food and Drug Administration to approve electronic cigarettes as a smoking cessation device).
But has the tobacco industry been blowing smoke about electronic cigarettes all along?
That would seem to be the case, according to a study published last month in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine.
Two researchers -- Dr. Sara Kalkhoran, previously a clinical fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, and Dr. Stanton Glantz, UCSF professor of medicine and director of the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education -- examined 38 (including control groups) out of a possible 577 identified studies, and they discovered in their meta-analysis that the odds of quitting cigarettes was actually 28% lower for electronic cigarette users than for those who didn't use electronic cigarettes. The reasons for quitting, as well as the control factors, did not significantly differ between either group.
According to Kalkhoran:
As currently being used, e-cigarettes are associated with significantly less quitting among smokers. E-cigarettes should not be recommended as effective smoking cessation aids until there is evidence that, as promoted and used, they assist smoking cessation.
Co-author Glantz took a softer tone but sent the same message:
While there is no question that a puff on an e-cigarette is less dangerous than a puff on a conventional cigarette, the most dangerous thing about e-cigarettes is that they keep people smoking conventional cigarettes.
What Glantz is getting at is that electronic cigarettes keep the consumer addicted to nicotine, making it apparently difficult to kick the habit of smoking cigarettes. Even though electronic cigarettes are cheaper and perceived to be safer than tobacco products, consumers don't appear willing to give cigarettes up.
This isn't the first knock against electronic cigarettes
What's more concerning is that last month's findings were far from the first knock against electronic cigarettes.
A study released last year by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed a sample of 51 electronic-cigarette liquids for the presence of three flavoring chemicals, all of which are known to have adverse effects on the lungs. After testing each flavored liquid in a sealed and controlled laboratory device, researchers found that 47, or 92%, contained at least one of three harmful chemicals. More specifically, about three-quarters of the tested liquids contained an above-laboratory-limit amount of diacetyl, a chemical that's known to cause popcorn lung and a host of other serious diseases.
In late 2014, a research study from National Jewish Health, a nonprofit hospital organization, announced that the liquid used in electronic cigarettes had been linked to an increased risk of respiratory viral infections. This study raised the key point that, in general, we don't really know what's in the thousands of flavored liquids currently being marketed by the electronic cigarette industry.
This last point has raised the debate over whether or not the Food and Drug Administration should regulate electronic cigarettes as tobacco products. While the agency proposed to do so in an initial report in 2014, the industry is not currently under the regulation of the FDA.
However, if the FDA were to get its way, electronic cigarette growth would likely come to a screeching halt. All new liquid flavorings would need to be approved by the FDA prior to marketing, labeling requirements concerning safety would probably be beefed up, and liquid flavorings would probably undergo rigorous testing for their chemical composition. Manufacturing consistency of flavoring liquids would also need to be demonstrated. Needless to say, none of this is particularly appealing to companies like Altria and Reynolds Americans, which are counting on electronic cigarette revenue to help make up for slumping tobacco sales.
Investors who have been expecting electronic cigarettes to fill the void left by tobacco may be sorely disappointed. A number of reports have questioned the long-term safety of electronic cigarettes, and regulators remain clearly concerned about the quality of the product being sold in retail outlets. Although there's still plenty of data left to be pored over, investors might be wise to keep their money far away from this industry until the smoke clears.