A cowboy hat on his head, a lasso in his hand, a cigarette in his mouth – this is how the “Marlboro Man” was once seen on billboards all over America. Many citizens wanted to be like him: cool, tough, free. The advertising campaign, which ended in 1999, brought millions of customers to the US tobacco industry. It is considered one of the most successful in the world.
Everything looks different today. The land of the Marlboro man is in a battle against smoking. Two decisions were made this week that could plunge America’s tobacco companies into the greatest crisis in their history. They are likely to turn millions of US citizens away from cigarettes, both traditional and electronic.
On Tuesday it was announced that the US government wants to force tobacco manufacturers to reduce the nicotine content of their cigarettes. And to the extent that smoking is no longer addictive. There is talk of a reduction of up to 95 percent. The FDA estimates that 13 million people could then quit smoking. That would be equivalent to almost half of all American smokers.
“This is a very good measure,” says Harold Wimmer, head of the American Lung Association. “It should ensure that fewer young people become addicted just by trying it out.” And long-time smokers, Wimmer believes, will help the step to reach for a cigarette less often and finally to quit completely.
Then, just 48 hours later, on Thursday, the FDA banned the Juul company from selling all electronic cigarettes in the United States. This could end a short, wild era. Founded in 2015 by two students from the elite Stanford University, Juul was considered the star of Silicon Valley. The company once controlled 75 percent of the American e-cigarette market. After a series of scandals and lawsuits, the proportion dropped to 50 percent. Sales also plummeted, from $2 billion in 2019 to $1.3 billion in 2021. Now, following the FDA’s decision, Juul is struggling to survive.
The Marlboro Man was aimed at real men, while Juul was aimed at America’s teenagers – and as a result got discredited. The manufacturer’s advertisements used to show young models, and the cigarettes were flavored with mango and crème brûlée. “Smoking has changed,” was one of the slogans. Today, Juul is more reserved and only offers Virginia tobacco and menthol flavors in the USA. Still, the FDA has concerns. The company’s products may contain harmful chemicals, authorities said.
Both moves — reducing nicotine levels in traditional cigarettes and banning Juul — are part of a larger plan. US President Joe Biden wants to halve the number of Americans dying of cancer in the next 25 years. The project is called “Cancer Moonshot”. Only Bill Clinton was as tough as Biden against tobacco companies. Clinton forced her to pay $200 billion into the health care system in 1998 and banned advertising on large billboards. It was the end of the Marlboro man.
Biden’s nicotine plan is likely to have wider implications than the Juul ban. According to the consulting firm Grand View Research, the American market for electronic cigarettes is around six billion dollars, that for conventional ones more than 95 billion.
Tobacco giants like Altria and Reynolds, by their very nature, don’t believe in reducing nicotine levels. They warn that this will only lead to a new black market for normal cigarettes later on.
How does it go from here? The FDA is scheduled to come up with a proposal for specific rules by May 2023. The US Congress then has to debate and vote on possible legislation. In addition, there are likely to be lawsuits – it is considered likely that the cigarette manufacturers will file a large number of lawsuits. Analysts at New York investment bank Jefferies estimate the whole process will take five to ten years. In the end, the cigarette as it exists today could be banned in America.
A year ago, the FDA announced a ban on menthol cigarettes, which account for about a third of the market and are considered a kind of gateway drug, especially for teenagers. Because the menthol cools the throat, making it easier to inhale the harsh tobacco smoke. But in this case, too, years may pass before actual banishment occurs.
All of this is devastating news for the tobacco industry. She’s already suffering. The number of smokers in the USA has been falling for a long time. In the 1960s and 1970s—the golden era of the Marlboro man—four out of ten American adults smoked. According to the health authority CDC, today it is less than 13 percent. That corresponds to around 30 million citizens.
Smoking, according to the CDC, is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths in the United States each year. The authority puts the costs for the health care system at almost 300 billion dollars. At least the danger that smokers expose themselves to will not change with Biden’s new rules. Low nicotine cigarettes may be less addictive than traditional smokers – but their smoke contains the same carcinogenic substances.
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