British American Tobacco announced in October that it is to invest $1bn over 5 years into the e-cigarette industry in Italy. While global e-cigarette consumption has undoubtedly soared since their introduction, and the debate surrounding their safety rumbles on, much of Southern Europe already seems to be over the hype.
In Italy, the introduction of e-cigarettes has led to around 6,000 stores trading them in 2012, but a May 2014 study by statistics institute Doxa revealed that over half of these have already closed, with the number of habitual users falling from over 2mn in 2013 to 800,000 in 2014. At the same time, the number of regular smokers has stayed relatively constant since 2008, while the percentage of consumers smoking cheap hand-rolled cigarettes has tripled since 2009. In Spain too, where tobacco consumption is particularly high, e-cigarette association ANCE reported in November 2014 that many of the several thousand e-cigarette stores that had sprung up across the country since 2011 have shut up shop.
As global regulators argue over their positioning in the market, consumers may be finding it equally hard to know what to make of e-cigarettes. With no firm backing as yet from healthcare professionals, they can’t be judged a completely safe substitute to NRTs or even regular cigarettes. On the other hand, as a leisure / lifestyle product, despite their ability to deliver nicotine, e-cigarettes still do not seem to afford the user nearly as much satisfaction as regular or hand-rolled cigarettes. As one character from Italian TV series Gomorrah crudely put it when asked about e-cigarettes, “it’s like comparing crap to the sweetest donut”, a feeling echoed in a number of my conversations with smokers over the past year. Furthermore, hand-rolled tobacco products often command a lower retail price for the consumer than premium e-formats, a significant factor in Southern European economies badly hit by the recession.
So while the early findings of the Cochrane Collaboration suggest that the crossover from toxic tobacco-based cigarettes to e-cigarettes is beneficial to health, manufacturers should note that there is still considerable room for innovation with regards to creating a product which delivers similar satisfaction levels to cigarettes, without the harmful toxins found in them alongside nicotine. It will be interesting to see whether Big Tobacco is able to bridge this gap in an already disenchanted Southern Europe, and whether OTC marketers of traditional NRTs take the opportunity to invest more in promoting the health benefits of their own products, particularly while doctors and pharmacists are still very much onside. Watch this space…
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