THE LONG READ: How the cigarette kings bought the vaping industry

KINGSLEY Wheaton found himself in the middle of a coup d’état. It was 1999. At 23, he had joined the cigarette manufacturer, Rothmans, who had sent him to Dubai.

THE LONG READ: How the cigarette kings bought the vaping industry

When British American Tobacco (BAT) acquired Rothmans, Wheaton was relocated to West Africa, to Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast, to promote a portfolio of brands including Craven A, Benson & Hedges and Rothmans.

Abidjan, colloquially known as the Paris of Africa, was a desirable posting, but, at the turn of the millennium, stability was ending. On Christmas Eve, President Henri Konan Bédié was overthrown. “We were locked in our houses with gunfire going on for three days,” Wheaton says. “It was quite spicy.”

Fifteen years later, Wheaton was in another potential conflict. In the intervening years, he had run the Russia office for BAT, and had become the youngest-ever board member at the world’s second-largest international tobacco firm.

At the end of 2014, BAT rewarded his hard work by putting him in charge of their ‘next-generation products’, responsible for devices that deliver nicotine without smoking. Now 41, thickset and goatee-bearded, Wheaton was charged with entering his company into a field that had the potential to destroy its traditional operations.

“Now, you’ve got to deliver, and the world awaits, and BAT wants results,” he says. “But that’s fine. That’s all part of that excitement, I suppose.”

Since the 1950s, the world’s major tobacco companies have faced one setback after another. In a study of 40,000 British doctors, that began in 1951, British epidemiologists, Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill, demonstrated the link between tobacco smoking and disease.

In the years that followed, Western governments introduced increasingly punitive regulatory and taxation regimes. The US banned TV advertising in 1970. Cigarette logos faded from Formula 1 cars, and health warnings on packs proliferated in size and punch.

Ireland banned smoking in pubs and restaurants. Finally, in March, 2015, the Irish and British governments followed Australia’s example and introduced plain packaging.

Tax now accounts for 80% of the price of cigarettes in the UK and adult smoking prevalence — 22% for men and 17% for women — is less than half its 1974 levels. (According to the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association, the typical price of a packet of 20 premium cigarettes in Spain is €5.26 and in Poland €3.81, compared to £12.50 in the UK and €10 in Ireland. 38% of Polish and 33% of Spanish adult males smoke, according to the latest World Bank data [2011].)

Though the odds were stacking higher against them, the tobacco firms could still cope. Big Tobacco acclimatised to falling demand; the developing world was a growing market and, paradoxically, heavy tax regimes in the West disguised price hikes by the manufacturers. When much of the price is taxation, the manufacturer has a significant increase in share, with a relatively small increase at the retail level. The big-four global tobacco companies made €30bn in pre-tax profits in 2014.

Lately, though, change has been more drastic. In 2003, a Chinese technologist, Hon Lik, invented the electronic cigarette, which delivers nicotine through an aerosol of propylene glycol and glycerin, rather than via the combustion products of dried tobacco leaves.

Independent producers pioneered the first ‘e-cigarettes’, which were crude. Big Tobacco stood on the sidelines, content with the status quo. Soon, though, e-cigarettes improved and the market scaled up. Last year, global sales accounted for €4bn, a fraction of the €700bn that conventional cigarettes tallied in 2013, but still a significant sum. Pundits suggested that, in time, e-cigarettes would change the way nicotine was consumed.

“It’s game-changing,” says Bonnie Herzog, an analyst at Wells Fargo, in the US, and one of the most bullish exponents of e-cigs and other “reduced-risk products”. “I’m of the view that, in the next decade, consumption of these products will surpass consumption of tobacco cigs.”

Big Tobacco began to realise that e-cigarettes were not just a fad, but a new threat to their established markets. And they might be the prototype of a product the industry had long searched for in vain: the safer cigarette.

“The Kodak scenario, they talk about that,” says David Sweanor, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and veteran of tobacco control, referring to the film manufacturer that filed for bankruptcy in 2012, pole-axed by digital photography. “They don’t want to do a Kodak.”

“The potential for a product which satisfies their customers, but doesn’t do anything like the harm, is something they’ve been dreaming of for a long time,” says Jonathan Fell, who runs Ash Park Capital, a fund that invests in tobacco stocks. Latecomers to the e-cig party, the tobacco firms now began to move. Their mergers and acquisitions teams bought up independent e-cigarette producers. In April, 2012, American brand, Lorillard, purchased Blu for $135m. In 2014, Japan Tobacco took Zandera, maker of E-Lites. Imperial Tobacco concluded a deal with Hon Lik, the Chinese inventor of the e-cigarette.

Philip Morris International, the makers of Marlboro, bought Nicocigs. And, in December, 2012, British American Tobacco purchased a Manchester start-up, CN Creative. “They want a dog in the fight,” says Clive Bates, a former head of the campaign group, Action on Smoking and Health, who now blogs on the e-cigarette industry.

BAT’s research and development facility sits in a former cigarette factory in Southampton, on the south coast of England. Downstairs, a production line remains for trialling new products. All UK workplaces went smoke-free in 2007. However,

BAT has, by special dispensation, a room where their internal blenders and testers can still work in a smoke-wreathed environment.

At the centre of this complex sits Dr David O’Reilly, BAT’s group scientific and R&D director. O’Reilly, who makes carefully measured movements, says that BAT’s experiments with alternative products predated the advent of the e-cigarette.

The R&D department was created in the 1950s in response to Doll and Hill’s report on the dangers of smoking. The first head of R&D was the physicist, Charles Drummond Ellis. His remit: to invent a safer cigarette. “The report came out,” O’Reilly says. “The response of the board was, ‘Okay, so we need to find out what’s causing this in cigarette smoke and remove the problem’.”

That quest proved long, and, ultimately, chimerical. At BAT, a final clinical study was concluded only three years ago, in 2012. The firm modified the source tobacco plant and inserted selective filtration devices into cigarettes.

But the resulting product was no safer. “There was disappointment, but that was offset with, ‘We’ve got a clear answer’,” O’Reilly says. “This gave us a very clear conclusion that there was no merit in pursuing this any further.”

O’Reilly says that when e-cigarettes first appeared, the company was uninspired by its initial iterations, and believed that European regulation would categorise such products as medicinal — a threshold that would be hard to meet using the propylene glycol model.

In June, 2011, therefore, BAT entered into a partnership with Kind Consumer, a company working on a nicotine inhaler that uses HFA, a chemical in asthma inhalers. In September, 2014, BAT became the first tobacco company to gain a UK medicines licence for a product it called Voke.

The founder of Kind Consumer is 32-year-old Alex Hearn. As an undergraduate at Oxford University, medical invention fascinated him. A smoker, he read scientific papers that suggested that the real harm came from the smoke, not the nicotine.

Hon Lik, (below), the inventor of the e-cigarette, had a similar idea. Yet Hearn ruled out heating vapour, wary of the potential of that process to create unwanted chemicals. He founded Kind in 2006. The company attracted investment from former Tesco CEO, Terry Leahy. However, he says, the cost of medical licensing made going it alone difficult.

Hearn pitched the idea to pharmaceutical and consumer-goods companies, but neither wanted to know. That just left Big Tobacco. “Do we partner with the old, 500lb gorilla, the dancing devil, which was BAT and others did, or do you try and do it yourself?” he says.

The collaboration with Kind required BAT to construct an in-house pharmaceutical firm. The architect of that institution was Kevin Bridgman, chief medical officer at Nicovations, BAT’s subsidiary for medically licensed products.

I met Bridgman one January afternoon at Globe House, BAT’s headquarters on the banks of the River Thames, in London. The building’s lobby includes a photo-mural of cheerful smokers, titled ‘Satisfying Consumer Moments’, and the hints of eccentricity run deeper. ‘Cigar Store Indians’ — carved statues of Native Americans traditionally found in tobacconists — adorn the otherwise modern offices.

Bridgman is 51. After eight years as a medical doctor, he moved into the pharmaceutical industry, where he spent two decades at Pharmacia & Upjohn, Pfizer, and then Johnson & Johnson. He had set himself up as a consultant when BAT called, in 2012.

“I was, as a physician, a little bit cautious about a tobacco company,” Bridgman says. “So I said, ‘I’ll come and join as a consultant’.”

After six months, he enlisted full-time. “I actually very quickly became very comfortable with what was going on here,” he says.

But a pharmaceutical job inside a tobacco company brings complexities. Some scientists refuse to accept funding from the tobacco industry. Likewise, some academic publications, including the British Medical Journal and its sister publications, refuse to publish research funded by the tobacco industry, suggesting it can be biased.

Voke, which BAT plans to bring to market by the end of this year, consists of a red-and-white cuboid the size of a normal cigarette packet. A hinge at one side reveals a removable, cigarette-like object. There are no electronics; no heating.

Compressed HFA powers the device and the consumer inserts the mouthpiece into a port at the base of the packet, to recharge it. Unlike an e-cigarette, no vapour is visible when you breathe out.

The scale of the cultural collision Voke is creating is clear on another day, in February, at Globe House. In a seminar room, Bridgman briefs Wheaton on the extensive regulations that apply to medically licensed products. The process takes hours. Bridgman’s slides explain the mechanisms required for recording unforeseen events and how advertising claims must be backed up. Tobacco veteran Wheaton looks like a boy on his first day at school.

He turns to Bridgman, who has spent much of his previous career working on pharmaceutical nicotine-replacement-therapy (NRT) products. “With all the power of big pharma companies,” he says. “With all the insight, everything they have in their toolkit, their inability to really break through with NRT still amazes me,” he says.

“There’s a major fear, among some parts, of having a product that looks like a cigarette,” Bridgman says. “They don’t want any kind of reputational challenge with their core customers, who are doctors. Secondly, there’s the whole addiction element.”

“I see,” Wheaton says. “Because addiction is a disease. Because they’re giving people nicotine, they’re saying, ‘I’m giving them a disease’.”

In parallel to the Voke project, BAT bought CN Creative. When questioned, BAT executives suggested a more conventional e-cigarette, in parallel to the Voke medically licensed product, to produce a wide range of products. A device that heats rather than burns tobacco is also in the pipeline for 2016, though BAT will say little about it.

Not everyone agrees. One public health operative, who did not want to be named, because of her public profile, suggested that a BAT executive called Adrian Marshall pursued the medical-licence route with Voke, until a separate faction in BAT witnessed the boom in e-cigarettes and then purchased CN Creative without consulting him.

Marshall, now working for an independent e-cigarette firm, Gamucci, did not respond to an interview request. In a statement, BAT says Marshall was “fully consulted regarding British American Tobacco’s e-cigarette business plans”.

BAT’s initial e-cigarette offering, the Vype, was first launched in July, 2013, eight months after the acquisition of CN Creative. In its compact eStick form, Vype comes in a container with a U-shaped cross section 9cm long. Flipping the translucent lid reveals a removable, cigarette-like object, its base squidgy like a conventional cigarette filter. The product is available in ‘blended tobacco,’ ‘crisp mint’ and ‘dark cherry’ flavours. Vype is only available in the UK.

Wheaton says that in the UK BAT’s share of cigarette sales is just under 10%. If e-cigarettes or Voke take smokers away, there is a good chance they will prise them from another manufacturer. It would be different for the two firms that dominate the UK’s cigarette market: Japan Tobacco (which markets Benson & Hedges and Camel) and Imperial Tobacco, which sells Lambert & Butler. Others are sceptical of the cannibalisation argument. “Does selling spaghetti hoops hopelessly conflict with selling baked beans?” Clive Bates asks. “Heinz do both.”

How best to market e-cigarettes is a complex question. One Wednesday afternoon in February, I accompany Wheaton to Knightsbridge, in west London. Three-letter acronyms are in triple union at this meeting. BAT has come to WPP, the world’s largest advertising agency, to refine its strategy for selling NGP: next-generation products.

“This is the year in which it’s exploded; it’s become part of society and culture,” a WPP digital planning director, Malky Brown, says. He runs through the advertising tactics of BAT’s rivals in the e-cigarette market. Britain banned televised tobacco advertising in 1965, but, since November, 2014, e-cigarette promotion has appeared, controversially, on-screen, as well as in print and online.

Brown shows a campaign from Blu, the brand owned by Lorillard. Up flashes a slide of Blu’s ‘party bus’, which traverses bars and clubs disbursing product. The black vehicle sports the slogan, ‘Freedom for the Taking’, in large letters.

“It doesn’t look like a party bus, does it?” Wheaton asks. “If you’re, like, 19 years old, Kingsley, you’d think that was a party bus,” Brown says.

Now comes NJOY, the independent brand. In their ad, a man steals the oversized head from an American football team mascot. “Friends don’t let friends smoke,” a voice announces. “Give them an NJOY King electronic cigarette.”

For Brown, these efforts fall into two categories. Either they suggest freedom and excitement, like Blu, or they present a healthier alternative to cigarettes, à la NJOY. “It’s always about how we can position ourselves as close to cigarettes as we can,” he says.

When the presentation is done, Wheaton addresses the ad man. “So, Vype?” he asks. “Which of those two do we sit in?” Brown replies. “That’s the question.”

The answer, he says, is neither. Brown presents research, suggesting smokers who might switch over to vaping are baffled. “There’s this over here and people saying ‘let’s just get one that looks like a cigarette’ over here,” he says.

“Niche and unrecognised brands. Who do you trust, which one’s good?” His solution is to disregard the lifestyle choice idea and the better alternative to smoking. Instead, the line would be ‘simple, quality vaping products’.

Up spins a Vype TV spot. Tingly music plays. Fingers rotate a black ePen against a white field. “We gave ourselves 10 seconds to change the cartridge on our Vype ePen,” a voice announces. “We only needed seven.”

Wheaton is pleased. “I think it’s fantastic,” he says. “It’s clever, it’s clear, it’s smart, it’s of now. It’s cerebral in a way. Very hard to define.”

On a number of levels, the e-cigarette situation represents an encounter between individuals and behemoths, though it is not always clear who will prevail.

In Amsterdam, in February, fog hangs over the canals and the Dutch cycle with casual disregard for head protection. I have come to meet Hon Lik, the father of the electronic cigarette.

I arrive at the headquarters of Fontem Ventures, Imperial Tobacco’s own e-cig subsidiary. It is a strange meeting. Fontem HQ has a start-up feel. Young people tote laptops and wander past stacks of ‘Puritane’ e-cigarettes.

In this funky world, Hon presents a contrast — a bespectacled, middle-aged Chinese man in a dark suit. In close proximity follows his translator, Annie Zheng Yi.

Hon’s development of the e-cigarette began when he worked at a Hong Kong-listed healthcare firm, Golden Dragon. He was a heavy smoker — three packs per day.

“He had some physical reactions to it, for instance itchy throat, coughing,” Zheng Yi says. “So he realised there are some adverse effects of smoking.”

In late 2002, Hon began experimenting with alternative vehicles to deliver nicotine. The idea to use propylene glycol (PG) came from a method of dust removal, in which water mixed with PG is boiled, creating a mist that coats dust particles in the air, pulling them down to the ground.

Later, Fontem sent me a photograph of the initial prototype that he made at Golden Dragon. Its mouthpiece was attached to an external circuit board by umbilical wires. The contraption was designed to test automation; a coil passed through a nicotine solution, which carried a current, creating vapour. “You can assume that’s a test ground,” Hon says. “It’s not a product, not having the current look and feel. You would not realise it is an e-cigarette.”

The first device to come to the market, in October, 2004, was called Ruyan. Hon’s translator explains the etymology. “Ru means ‘likewise’, and sometimes it even means ‘beyond’, or ‘better’. Yan actually means ‘smoke’, and ‘cigarette’.”

In 2013, Imperial bought the patents from Hon and his firm, Dragonite, for $75m. In March last year, Imperial instigated lawsuits against 11 American e-cigarette manufacturers, including NJOY and Logic Technology Development, claiming their products infringed their freshly acquired IP.

There is a wider lesson here: Hon pioneered the product that threatened to disrupt Big Tobacco; 12 years on, he now works for Big Tobacco. Like Alex Hearn in England, he partnered with the 500lb gorilla. Wells Fargo’s Bonnie Herzog is among those who believe Big Tobacco will probably emerge as the eventual sector winner, though the market will retain room for “several smaller or independent players”.

Another Goliath vs David case is emerging between Big Tobacco and what has become loosely known as ‘vaping culture’. Vapelab is one of its institutions, based in Shoreditch, in east London. Vapelab is atypical of an alternative culture — “the Harrods of the market“, as one vaper says, its prices reflect the cost of London’s commercial real estate.

Despite that, the atmosphere amid its hipster, chic furnishings illustrates how vaping has burgeoned into a phenomenon.

Inside, an ATM is denominated in Bitcoin and bare bulbs hang from long cables. At the counter, serried ‘e-liquids’— nicotine solutions — sit in tanks. Flavours include tropical toucan, bananaquit, and crème de la vanille.

William Francome, a documentary filmmaker, discusses with Leonardo Verzano, one of the shop’s employees, how he can follow up on an e-cigarette he has acquired from the United States. Verzano talks Francome through four devices that Vapelab offers as starter kits: the Joyetech Joye510CC, the eCom-C Twist and two products made by TECC, the Curve and the Curve Mini. These range from £42-£70. None resembles a cigarette.

In this diverse new world, the kinds of devices pioneered by Hon Lik are now known as first-generation e-cigarettes, more recent products as second- or third-generation. The categories are slippery.

However, broadly, the following divisions can be drawn: first-generation e-cigarettes mirrored conventional cigarettes in form, hence the alternate name of the ‘cig-a-like’. These used sealed reservoirs of nicotine solution — cartridges — that cannot be refilled. Examples in the UK included E-Lites and some incarnations of NJOY. Conventional cigarette dimensions constrained battery size, with a consequent impact on performance. Many smokers found cig-a-likes unsatisfying.

“Products that look like a cigarette are, for the most part, unfeasibly expensive and, in reality, under normal user conditions, little more than a placebo,” says David Joyce, a 44-year-old vaper from Telford.

A second-generation device is distinguished by its reuseability, a battery that can be recharged and a reservoir that can be refilled with liquid. Some have adjustable power settings.

At the Vapelab, Hungarian manager, Gergely Fülöp, emitting clouds of watermelon mint vapour as he speaks, points to the Joye510CC, at £42, and the eCom-C Twist, at £63, as examples of these. Third-party e-liquids led to a proliferation of flavours. While these devices have a higher price than cig-a-likes, their ‘open systems’ make them cheaper to use in the long term.

Third-generation products are more elaborate still, distinguished by options for user customisation. Users say second- and third-generation devices are more effective at weaning them off conventional cigarettes.

“I started off with a ciggie lookalike, seven years ago in July,” says Chrissie Gray, a property developer from St Blazey, in Cornwall. “It helped me cut down drastically, but it wasn’t till I got better kit and e-liquids that I managed to completely give up smoking.”

That finding is supported by a paper published in the journal, Nature, last year, which showed that new-generation devices produced blood plasma nicotine levels 35-72% higher than first-generation devices, though delivery was still slower than with conventional cigarettes.

The growth of the vaping subculture is significant for Big Tobacco: it is not entering a virgin market. There are already loyalties, a knowledge base and, in many cases, profound scepticism of traditional cigarette manufacturers. “We’ve already given them tens of thousands of pounds over the years each,” says Kevin Inskip, a 61-year-old graphic designer from West Yorkshire. “There’s a certain amount of resentment about giving them any more.”

This scepticism was apparent in responses to a thread I started on the E-Cigarette Forum (e-cigarette-forum.com), one of the leading vaping sites, canvassing responses to BAT’s ‘next-generation products’.

Among 60 responses, scepticism of Vype fell into three areas: the first was the efficacy of the device and how it compares to the offerings of independent producers. The posters suggest the small version, the eStick, is fatally constrained by size limitations on its battery, while even the larger ePen, which has a 640mAh battery, still lacks adequate muscle.

The second area of criticism is the cost. The Vype, in both variants, is a closed system, compatible only with proprietary BAT consumables. The disposable razor blade is analogous; the manufacturer’s profit lies with the consumable rather than the initial purchase.

“I would not buy/use anything with proprietary cartridges or threading,” says one poster, using the handle Klynn. “All that does is keep you hooked to one supplier, creating a monopoly.”

Another calculates that Vype would cost four times the amount he pays with his independent system to vape the same amount of e-liquid for a year. So far, so negative. However, several posters acknowledge a desire for a simple product that does not require extensive modification.

“I would love it if I could get it down to the convenience similar to reaching into your pocket, pulling out a pack of cigarettes, pulling one out,” says ‘Lunar’. Vaper opinion then suggests there is a market for a plug-in-and-play e-cigarette.

Vype might not be that product. BAT’s pitch for Voke is that there is an untapped market of smokers who would like the reassurance of a device with medical certification. On this theme, too, the vaping community is unconvinced: “The MHRA will certainly license a product that may look like an e-cig,” says Chris Price, who runs the website, E-Cigarette Politics.

“It won’t be an e-cig, though. It will be a repackaged asthma inhaler of some kind, and will appeal to consumers like an expensive, and not very efficient, enema does.”

Ultimately, the deciding factor in Big Tobacco’s entry into the e-cigarette field lies beyond the vapers’ control, and in the hands of regulators. When e-cigarettes first arrived in Europe, medicine regulation looked like the probable path.

However, the EU’s second Tobacco Products Directive, which was approved in February, 2014 and will come into effect in May, 2016, will, instead, provide two channels, first with e-cigarette specific legislation that, in some ways, resembles tobacco laws, and, second, as a medical device.

The first category will be limited to maximum, e-liquid strength of 20mg/millilitre. Most forms of advertising, including broadcast and print media, will be banned.

Refill tanks will be limited to 2ml, which will outlaw some more sophisticated devices.

Taking the medical-device route will require a costly regulatory approval process, likely out of the reach of the independent players who pioneered the market.

“These developments are central to a view held by many e-cigarette users that regulators have massively overreacted to e-cigarettes, encouraged by public health organisations in a way that will choke off the supply of the most effective second- and third-generation products,” says Bates. Totally Wicked, a UK e-cigarette company that aspires to be a “modern-day tobacconist“, is bringing a legal challenge to the TPD.

“The metaphorical genie is now out of the bottle, you can’t now put it back in,” says its MD, Fraser Cropper. It remains to be seen whether his challenge will succeed.

Much of the drive for strict regulation has come from those concerned about the health and safety of e-cigarettes. Here, a fierce debate is underway: what is the impact of long-term nicotine use? What is the presence and consequence of contaminants in e-cigarette vapour? Could vaping provide a gateway to traditional tobacco use?

E-cigarette advocates admit long-term studies are not yet available, and so comparison with abstinence is difficult. But they are adamant that the devices are much safer than conventional cigarettes and that a widespread switch to e-cigarettes would have major public health benefits.

Many point to another reduced-risk product, the Swedish refined oral tobacco, Snus, which the EU banned in 1992. Sweden obtained a dispensation to continue selling Snus, when it joined the EU in 1995, and the product accounts for much of male nicotine consumption there.

European median occurrence of lung cancer deaths for men aged 60-69 is 220 per 100,000. In Sweden, the figure is 87. Yet, the Snus ban prevents the export of those benefits beyond Scandinavia.

Not all agree. Much of the fissure depends on a basic, and in many ways ideological, division central to tobacco control, and broader drug policy: whether to subscribe to a cessation approach, colloquially categorised as ‘quit or die’, or instead to ‘harm reduction’, acknowledging that a certain fraction of the population is likely to use the product and working out how to limit the damage incurred by those who do so.

The paradox is that while many of the most outspoken advocates of strict e-cigarette regulation come from public health — and are themselves vehemently opposed to tobacco companies — the winners from tight regulation are likely to be the tobacco companies themselves, who have the deep pockets to negotiate it.

Professor Peter Hajek, director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at Barts School of Medicine, in London, is concerned that some figures within public health, wary, on instinct, of anything to do with nicotine, are pushing for levels of regulation that will make e-cigarettes uncompetitive and will maintain the market monopoly of deadly, conventional cigarettes.

“I fear the irrational view that the main priority is to eradicate nicotine use — even if it means that smokers are going to continue to die unnecessarily — is going to win,” he says in an email. “I’m doing what I can to make regulators realise that they are in danger of repeating the serious mistake made previously with banning Snus.”

In November, 2014, the second ‘E-Cigarette Summit’ was held at the Royal Society, in central London.

Traditionally, the tobacco industry convenes at tobacco industry conferences, and public health groups get together at tobacco control conferences. Rarely do the twain meet, but the arrival of e-cigarettes has broken this rigid divide.

The public health crowd blended — with evident suspicion — with tobacco and independent e-cigarette executives in the lobbies of John Nash’s edifice on Carlton House Terrace. A

t its dénouement, the conference became public theatre. Clive Bates took the stage, calling out “useful idiots” in public health, blindly doing the bidding of tobacco firms through evangelical opposition to anything involving nicotine.

The large firms, tobacco control veteran, David Sweanor, suggests, are trying to “figure out what to do, while waiting to see if regulators and anti-smoking groups rescue them again”.

If Big Tobacco carries the day with e-cigarettes, many believe it will have done so with the support of an unlikely fifth column.

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