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Big tobacco companies are putting big warning labels on their e-cigarettes

Tyler Benjamin blows smoke from his advanced personal vaporizer e-cigarette at Aqueous Vapor in Columbia, Mo. (Nick Schnelle/The Columbia Daily Tribune via Associated Press)
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MarkTen e-cigarette packages feature a 117-word warning: "Nicotine is addictive and habit forming, and is very toxic by inhalation, in contact with the skin, or if swallowed," the warning reads. The product, the warning says, is unsuitable for children and people with diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

For the health conscious, those warnings might make sense. But the New York Times discovered something kind of weird about them: MarkTen, along with the other e-cigarette brands produced by Big Tobacco companies, feature warnings that are sometimes several degrees more severe than those on the same corporations' traditional cigarettes.

MarkTen is produced by Nu Mark, which is owned by Altria. The parent company makes Marlboros, Parliament, Virginia Slims and several other recognized traditional brands and is the parent company of Phillip Morris.

According to MarkTen's Web site, the full product warning label reads:

"This product is not a smoking cessation product and has not been tested as such. This product is intended for use by persons of legal age or older, and not by children, women who are pregnant or breast feeding, or persons with or at risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, or taking medicine for depression or asthma. Nicotine is addictive and habit forming, and it is very toxic by inhalation, in contact with the skin, or if swallowed. Nicotine can increase your heart rate and blood pressure and cause dizziness, nausea, and stomach pain. Inhalation of this product may aggravate existing respiratory conditions. Ingestion of the non-vaporized concentrated ingredients in the cartridges can be poisonous."

Currently, traditional cigarettes feature one of several shorter warnings required by the Food and Drug Administration. A plan to require larger, graphic warnings in compliance with a 2009 law failed after a successful court challenge from many large corporations in the tobacco industry -- but not, it should be noted, Altria.

A spokesperson for Altria told the Times that the longer labels on the new e-cigarette products are part of "a goal to openly and honestly communicate about health effects," and that the labels are based on "previously developed warnings” for tobacco products.

Speaking to The Post, Bill Phelps, a Nu Mark spokesman, said that the company supports "the FDA developing a national warning" for e-cigarette products, adding that Nu Mark "looks to a variety of sources" to develop its current warnings "in the absence of a government-mandated warning."

Traditional cigarettes produced Nu Mark's parent company Altria use the shorter, federally-mandated language from the FDA. When asked whether the company could add more text to the mandated label warning on its tobacco cigarette packets, the spokesman noted that there's more information on the health effects of cigarettes on the company's website.

R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co., which makes Vuse and puts a similar warning on its e-cigarette products, had less to say to the paper on the subject. But a spokesman but did say that its warnings note that e-cigarettes aren't "combustion" based. R.J. Reynolds was part of the lawsuit challenging the new tobacco cigarette labels.

So why is this happening?

The Times explains one educated guess:

"Experts with years studying tobacco company behavior say they strongly suspect several motives, but, chiefly, that the e-cigarette warnings are a very low-risk way for the companies to insulate themselves from future lawsuits and, even more broadly, to appear responsible, open and frank. By doing so, the experts said, big tobacco curries favor with consumers and regulators, earning a kind of legitimacy that they crave and have sought for decades. Plus, they get to appear more responsible than the smaller e-cigarette companies that seek to unseat them."

Large tobacco companies now own some of the biggest e-cigarette brands, including Blu, which was acquired by Lorillard and later purchased by Imperial after Lorillard merged with the even larger R.J. Reynolds company.

But Big Tobacco shares the market with smaller companies, including those who sell "vape" pens. And all of them are trying to grab consumers from the traditional cigarette industry -- not to mention those who haven't previously smoked.

Although both traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes are basically methods for users to inhale the addictive drug nicotine, they work in different ways. Instead of burning tobacco leaves to produce smoke, e-cigarettes heat up a nicotine-containing liquid, producing vapor.

This side-steps the production of tar and other carcinogens inhaled by traditional cigarette smokers. "E-cigarettes appear to have far fewer of the toxins found in smoke compared to traditional cigarettes," the CDC wrote  this year. But the safety of e-cigarettes is still being debated.

Also empirically unsettled? Whether the products help traditional smokers quit the habit altogether, as many e-cigarette proponents allege.

In April, the FDA proposed a new rule that would allow the agency to start regulating the $2 billion dollar industry just like many other tobacco product.

The World Health Organization has also called for greater regulation of the products, among other things, to "prohibit unproven health claims about e-cigarettes" and to "impede e-cigarette promotion to non-smokers and young people."