Last month, the FDA closed its comment period for its proposed regulations on e-cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products. The three Big Tobacco companies are among the parties submitted comment. The submission from Reynolds was particularly self-serving:
Reynolds American Inc. has fired an expected shot across the bow of small vapor cigarette manufacturers.
A Reynolds division recommended to the Food and Drug Administration in a 119-page submission that the agency ban the use of vapor electronic cigarettes.
Traditional e-cigs are battery-powered devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution in a self-contained disposable cartridge and create a vapor that is inhaled. The manufacturers have provided few flavor choices, in part in expectations that the FDA would limit flavorings as they do with combustible cigarettes.
By comparison, vapor products can feature a liquid capsule that is inserted into a cartridge, known as an open-system format. Vapors offer consumers a wider variety of flavors, included fruits and candy.
The Big Tobacco companies have invested heavily in disposable cartridge e-cigs. These compete with the more customizable, DIY devices favored by many vapers and sold by small producers. But why try to win consumers over when you can persuade the government to ban the competition instead? The FDA’s new regulations give Big Tobacco the opportunity to try that, so of course they’re taking it.
This kind of regulatory capture has been baked into the FDA’s handling of tobacco from the beginning. The initial legislation was backed and negotiated by Philip Morris, owner of Marlboro; it benefited from new marketing restrictions and barriers to entry that protect its brands from competition. The market for cigarettes has been essentially frozen in its favor since the FDA’s extremely burdensome review process went into effect in 2009.
Reynolds is trying to repeat the same trick with e-cigarettes, stoking fears of an unregulated market to protect big brands from competition. They might succeed. Meanwhile the public benefits of FDA tobacco regulation remain extremely dubious.