Altruistic Altria, or why an anti-tobacco activist has taken up the giants’ cause

They’ve been demonised for decades as supervillains, now the biggest tobacco firms are transitioning – gradually reinventing themselves as Big Friendly Giants. Or at the very least re-styling themselves on the BFG model, taking every opportunity to proclaim their shift towards novel products.

Philip Morris International (PMI) announces right up front that it’s “Delivering a Smoke-Free Future”. British American Tobacco (BAT) has the slogan “A Better Tomorrow” etched into its front door. And Altria?

Aside from its promising venture with its On! nicotine pouches and its strategic heated tobacco partnership with Japan Tobacco, Altria has a somewhat downbeat record with e-cigarettes. Stuttering starts with Green Smoke and MarkTen brands were abandoned in late 2018 when the company put faith and cash in Juul, then king of the vaping world.

Having invested $12.8bn for a 35% stake in Juul a little over four years ago, Altria is reported to be on the verge of pulling out of the fallen vaping giant, which it is said to value now at a mere $1bn.

Instead it is expected to purchase Njoy, once (OK, eight years ago) the top e-cig brand in US stores, now (more relevantly) the possessor of rare marketing approvals from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a couple of tobacco-flavoured disposable e-cigs and its Ace pod. A snip at $2.75bn.


The Truth campaigner who changed sides (or did he?)


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    Meanwhile, in a less trumpeted but possibly also significant move, Altria has taken on the former chief operating officer of America’s biggest anti-tobacco association as an independent consultant.

    Is Dave Dobbins’s switch from COO of the Truth Initiative to a role with a tobacco company a case of gamekeeper turned poacher – or is there another interpretation we can put on it?

    American Vaping Association (AVA) president Gregory Conley takes the kindlier view, tweeting: “Dobbins isn’t a bad guy. He comes from the era when hippies who wanted to change the world entered tobacco control, in contrast to the low energy, money hungry, generic liberals that fill the field today. He’ll do more positive for the world at Altria than at 2023 Truth.”

    Dobbins himself said: “In my heart of hearts, I believe in the mission of harm reduction.” Which is no shift of position from what he said back in 2015, when he discussed the concept of absolute versus relative safety, telling the second Wells Fargo Securities E-Cig Conference that while there may be some harm in inhaling e-liquids it was much less than in smoking combustible cigarettes, and that while e-cigarettes may not be safe, they are safer.

    Now he says he intends to assist Altria “with their efforts to create the conditions to allow the company to transition adult smokers to smoke-free nicotine alternatives”, and that “I really do believe they want to move beyond smoking”.

    Admitting some would see his move as controversial, he explained: “This decision has been the result of extensive discussions and considerable soul searching, and I truly believe in the company’s desire for transformation mostly because it simply makes economic sense.”

    So there we have it. Tobacco giants transitioning to BFGs makes economic sense. Which may be the only kind of sense giants truly understand.

     Aidan Semmens TobaccoIntelligence staff

    Photo: Eldriva

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    Aidan Semmens