Big Tobacco has been involved in the vapor industry for a good amount of time now. Lorillard started the trend when they bought Blu several years back. RJ Reynolds has been making the trade show rounds, and actively selling their Vuse e cig in the greater Denver area for several months. Altria, the company that sells Marlboros and other popular analogs in the United States, does have an e cig (the MarkTen) currently available to vapers in Indiana. While performance figures from the Hoosier State have not been released, the MarkTen does not seem to have much buzz. RJ Reynolds started in one area, but has since expanded sales of the Vuse into Arizon and announced a national release in 2014, This leaves all of us wondering how Altria’s product is really being perceived by the vapor community. Their latest move seems smart, but may cue that they are scrambling.
Altria, and close partner Phillip Morris have struck an agreement to share products lines. To be clear calling them close partners may not be accurate, while they are separate companies Phillip Morris is really just a spinoff of the Altria group. Right now Altria sells analog Marlboros in the U.S., while Phillip Morris controls their sale in every other country. They have similar agreements with several other brands of analogs as well. At the end of the year news started coming out about a deal for the two companies to share in electronic cigarette sales as well. Some of the products that Altria develops will be available to Phillip Morris to be sold outside of the U.S., and vice versa.
Blu is one of the most popular brands of e cigs out there and Vuse’s presence is growing. While we haven’t tried one, the reviews for MarkTen look bleak. Vapers are reporting weak vapor and average to poor taste, not exactly a recipe for e cig success. One product that has been spoken about by Altria, but not highly detailed, is a “heat not burn” device. They would take tobacco and heat it enough to release flavor and nicotine, but not enough to burn. The claims are that such devices would deliver better taste, and deliver the user nicotine more efficiently. Neither of these claims have been proven, nor have we seen the device yet. However just this week news came out of Phillip Morris buying a factory in Italy. Presumably these new products will be developed there. For now the makers of Marlboro are calling these products “reduced risk” devices instead of electronic cigarettes. Part of that is surely to help them make their new product sound different. Those of you familiar with the Tobacco Control Act know that “reduced risk” is in fact a classification of tobacco products within the United States. Consider that it would make sense for Altria to already be thinking about regulation; hey they support it in many cases.
Is Altria scrambling due to MarkTen being a bust? Are they really on to something that might just turn out to be the biggest rival of the electronic cigarette as we know it? Buying a factory certainly says that they think they are. We won’t know until they decide to show us a little more. One thing is for sure, Big Tobacco is willing to spend to take over the vapor market. Regardless of how that makes you feel it is worth keeping an eye on.