In a drastic, and decidedly uncharacteristic move, tobacco companies are independently slapping stark warnings onto e-cigarette packages.The labels, which are similar to the kind big tobacco companies have historically battled to keep from off traditional cigarette packs, are also often far more foreboding.

Altria, for instance, which makes Marlboros, now sells its e-cigarettes with a label that warns Nicotine is "very toxic by inhalation, in contact with the skin, or if swallowed." And Reynolds American, which makes Camels, includes a cautionary note that people with "a heart condition, high blood pressure, or diabetes," as well as those "who are at the risk for heart disease" or "are taking medicine for depression or asthma" should avoid using them.

As the New York Times, which wrote about the puzzling trend this morning, explains, the cautionary labels are raising a few eyebrows:

They are putting out among the strongest health warnings in the fledgling e-cigarette industry, going further even than the familiar ones on actual cigarettes, a leading cause of death. It has left the industry’s critics scratching their heads and deeply skeptical.

But while large tobacco companies claim to be including warnings that read more like essays than caveats for the sole purpose of communicating health risks inherent in tobacco use, there's actually a clever business strategy at work here.

To begin with, cigarette warnings are less important than one might think, because people don't actually read them, let alone even notice them. A 2007 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that smokers, in particular, pay no mind to the warnings. A separate report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center notes that the effect of warning labels has "drastically weakened" since they were first mandated in 1984, to the point that they are "virtually meaningless," because people no longer even see them.

Since the new e-cigarette warnings will likely to go unnoticed by consumers, the labels aren't as risky or costly for the industry as they might seem. Which makes them a perfect voluntary compromise. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently mulling how to try e-cigarettes, and could levy a number of restrictions on the product, including the sort of marketing bans and heavy taxes that normal cigarettes are subject to. By slapping low-risk warnings onto e-cigarette packages, the industry might calm the FDA's response at a deceivingly low cost. Here's the New York Times:

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.

Tobacco companies might also earn a bit of public goodwill in the name of altruism.

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.

If Big Tobacco were actually serious about Americans' health, the industry might move to promote warnings the size and seriousness of those mandating in the European Union, which cover 65 percent of the surface of each cigarette pack, or agree to uniform, unbranded packs, which have been proven to stem smoking rates. Heck, if health were its main concern, it would stop selling cigarettes, which kill some 500,000 Americans annually, altogether.

"They do everything for legal reasons," Robert N. Proctor, a Stanford history professor who studies the tobacco industry, told the New York Times. "Otherwise they’d [tobacco companies would] stop making the world’s deadliest consumer products."