BEIJING –Hon Lik, a Chinese medical researcher, developed electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) in 2003. While China continues to be the largest supplier of the product worldwide, e-cigarettes only represent a very small percentage of the $200 billion Chinese tobacco industry, which is the biggest in the world. The Chinese government has begun cracking down on tobacco.
It reinforced the prohibition on officials smoking publicly and increased tobacco prices by 5 percent in January. Chinese health officials also have asserted their intentions to enact a nationwide ban on smoking in public places. Better public health outreach, greater awareness of the dangers of smoking and laws banning smoking in public, however, have led e-cigarette makers to look at China as a potentially huge untapped market for the product.
Lai Boasheng, general manager for the Chinese e-cigarette company Smoore, explains the opportunity in China as regulations of tobacco increase. Because tobacco laws in China have traditionally been relaxed, there was less of a demand for an alternative.
Over 300 million people in China smoke, a number in 2012 that represented 2.46 trillion cigarettes used, or 4.8 cigarettes per person each day.
One-third of all cigarettes in the world are smoked in China.
E-cigarette companies claim that their product is a healthier alternative to tobacco cigarettes. An e-cigarette does not have many of the harmful chemicals of a traditional cigarette and does not rely on burning tobacco. Since an e-cigarette vaporizes a nicotine liquid rather than burning tobacco, smokers “vape” and therefore might avoid some of the harmful effects of tobacco combustion.
These health claims, however, have been met by strong hesitancy by international health organizations like the British Medical Association and the World Health Organization. They urge caution regarding e-cigarettes because so little is known about the hazards of nicotine and of “vaping” or second-hand “vaping.”
Despite warnings, sales are increasing.
From 2009 to 2012, e-cigarette sales in the United States increased by 115 percent every year. Experts believe that increase could be as much as 240 percent in 2014. The global market for e-cigarettes could increase by five times by 2017, with estimates at roughly $10 billion. Still, e-cigarettes only account for 1 percent of the American cigarette market, and of the 7 percent of Europeans who had tried “vaping,” only 1 percent continued to do so.
E-cigarette manufacturers have further hurdles to overcome in many global markets. Countries such as Brazil and Singapore have banned e-cigarettes, and the European Union has discussed similar sweeping actions. American cities such as New York have included e-cigarettes in their indoor smoking bans.
Critics also claim that e-cigarette companies are “trying to have it both ways.”
Stanton A. Glantz, director of University of California, San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, asserts, “When it’s convenient to be like tobacco, they’re like tobacco and when it’s not convenient they’re not.”
E-cigarette companies have actively distanced themselves from making health claims. They have also hinted that their products could be used as smoking cessation devices, though if they actually made that claim, their product’s efficacy would be subject to rigorous studies and testing. While e-cigarette companies market themselves as healthier alternatives to cigarettes, many also market their products in a manner reminiscent of traditional cigarette ads.
Despite actively making no health claims, after the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act—which states that the Food and Drug Administration can regulate but not ban tobacco products—was passed, e-cigarette companies claimed to be protected because nicotine is a derivative of tobacco.
Despite e-cigarettes’ critics, the devices are growing in popularity, including among youth. In 2012, 6.8 percent of students grades 6 to grade 12 and 10 percent of high school students reported that they had tried e-cigarettes. Those figures were double the number of 2011.
International sales are also increasing.
Chinese manufacturer Smoore shipped more than 100 million e-cigarettes in 2013, sales representing double the number of the previous year. Europe and the U.S. still purchase the most e-cigarettes, but companies have their sights set on China and other nations as tobacco restrictions tighten and the largely unregulated e-cigarette companies’ profits continue to rise.
– Kaylie Cordingley
Sources: New York Times, The Economist, Reuters