The Smoker Who Came in From the Cold (Craig Douglass On Consumers)

I’m not so sure about this. Consumers who smoke, some who don’t and others who would like to quit are experimenting with new e-cigarettes. An ever-growing number of smokers, or former smokers, are just outright switching to the new electronic smoking device that delivers nicotine but emits no smoke, only vapor.

Rather than smoking, the new colloquialism is “vaping.”

E-cigarettes, including such brands as Blu, Vapor4Life, NJOY and V2Cigs, all use a similar configuration to simulate smoking. Some brands look like cigarettes, while others are long cylinders with a mouthpiece at the end, almost like a miniature flute. Inside you’ll find a small battery and a cotton wick soaked in nicotine immersed in what is called a carrier liquid, usually propylene glycol. When the smoker drags on the end of the faux cigarette or mouthpiece, the battery activates and heats up the liquid, turning it into vapor. The non-smoke yet nicotine-laden vapor is inhaled, exhaled and the smoker’s craving satisfied. The device is refillable and rechargeable, and ranges in cost from $30-$70. Industry representatives say refills run about $1 a day for an average user.

Courts have ruled, for now, that e-cigarettes are not a drug-delivery system but instead are a nicotine delivery device, and nicotine is derived from tobacco. If so, then the Food & Drug Administration should regulate e-cigarettes just as it does regular tobacco-filled smokes. The FDA is in the process of developing regulations for public scrutiny. And, at this writing, e-cigarettes are not considered banned from indoor consumption — in public places, office buildings, restaurants, etc. How they are or will be taxed is another matter.

In the industry, and in full view of the target consumers, manufacturers are debating whether or not the devices should emulate cigarettes or be a replacement for them. Smokers, they say, tend to romanticize the traditional cigarette — its size, shape, feel in the hand and throat experience delivered by the drag. Younger smokers, however, may appreciate the avant-garde shape and design of the tubular e-cigarette, some with a blue glow on the end (instead of red).

No doubt, the market may be segmented by generation. But one thing is for sure, the social stigma of the public cigarette smoker is being somewhat mitigated by the invention — around since the early 1960s — and health officials consider that as a move in the wrong direction.

Is the smokeless cigarette a gateway for teenagers to take up smoking, resulting in well-known health consequences? Do e-cigarettes provide those who would like to quit a jumping-off place to begin weaning themselves from the nasty habit (a patch of sorts)? Or, for those who have quit, is this a way to backslide and re-enjoy the hit from nicotine, with fewer health risks? One could answer “yes” to all of the above, although there is no research data to confirm or refute any of these posits.

From a consumer-marketing standpoint, a number of strategies may be taking shape based on the knowledge of nicotine users that tobacco companies readily understand. In fact, tobacco giants are jumping in the e-cigarette business in a big way. Lorillard owns Blu, Altria (Marlboro, et al) is market testing MarkTen in Indiana, and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco is trying out its e-cig version, Vuse, in Colorado. Whether the tobacco companies want to hook new users with a more benign introduction to nicotine or simply want to expand their market rather than cannibalize it is unsure. Sales are sales, I suppose, and stockholders simply want increased earnings. The New York Times reported in a recent article on the subject that U.S. sales have risen to more than $1.7 billion annually (compared with roughly $90 billion in annual sales for cigarettes).

So I’m not so sure about e-cigarettes. The implications for consumer behavior are unclear. What could be helpful to one person may be an introduction to a long-term and detrimental addiction to another. But until it is all sorted out, users of e-cigarettes are coming in from the cold.

Craig Douglass is a Little Rock advertising agency owner and marketing and research consultant. He is president of Craig Douglass Communications Inc. Email him at Craig@CraigDouglass.com.