Many large tobacco companies are marketing e-cigarette and vaping products as tools for “harm reduction,” but a University of Guelph marketing expert questions whether the aim of these public relations initiatives might really be the maximization of profits.

Prof. Timothy Dewhirst, Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies, wrote a recent commentary for Tobacco Control, a specialty journal of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), about the tobacco industry’s co-opting of “harm reduction,” a respected public health strategy for managing serious behaviours such as narcotics addiction.

Prof. Tim Dewhirst

The concept recommends safer health interventions to mitigate dangers for people unable to abstain from certain risky behaviours. Dewhirst argues that rather than truly working to reduce harm, the marketing of e-cigarettes appears aimed at maximizing sales, profit and return to shareholders.

“In summary, the goal of harm reduction is not achieved if the commercial marketing communication of next-generation products serves to attract new users such as youth that are never smokers, encourages dual use (in combination with combustible cigarettes in accordance with the use setting) or discourages cessation or altogether-quit attempts.”

Dewhirst is senior research fellow in marketing and public policy in the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics. His research expertise includes sports, arts and entertainment marketing.

He is also an associate editor of Tobacco Control in product marketing and promotion.