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Study finds Philip Morris worked on e-cigarette technology throughout the 1990s to skirt tobacco regulations

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC — A review of internal documents from Philip Morris suggests the tobacco company developed e-cigarette technology to evade tobacco control regulations, not to compete with conventional cigarettes.

In a study published in Tobacco Control, RTI International researcher Lauren Dutra, along with her then-colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, researchers Rachel Grana (now at the National Cancer Institute) and Stanton Glantz, investigated work on aerosol technology at Philip Morris using UCSF’s Truth Tobacco Documents Library.

They found that Philip Morris started developing a nicotine aerosol device in 1990, when smoking was becoming less socially acceptable and some smokers were switching to nicotine replacement therapy, including gum and transdermal patches. But because the company was concerned that nicotine aerosol products might run afoul of FDA regulations, it changed course, applying its technology to pharmaceuticals, creating (as Chrysalis, a division of Philip Morris USA) a pharmaceutical inhaler called Aria.

E-cigarettes are often characterized as an altruistic endeavor started by mom and pop shops,” Dutra said. “Our analysis shows that Philip Morris started developing e-cigarette technology in the 1990’s as a way to keep their customers buying Philip Morris’s products despite the negative health effects of smoking and indoor smoking restrictions.”

The first e-cigarette to be marketed, Ruyan, was released in China in 2003 and then in Europe and the United States around 2007. In 2013, the Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, released the MarkTen e-cigarette.

The report presents an alternative to the most widely cited narrative about the invention and spread of e-cigarettes, the authors note. Many researchers credit Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik with inventing the e-cigarette in 2003, and describe e-cigarettes as a disruptive technology that spread through the market, competing with big tobacco companies. 

However, long before Han Lik’s invention reached the U.S. market, Philip Morris was working on devices designed to keep health-conscious smokers from using nicotine replacement therapy that also would circumvent the legal restrictions that applied to cigarettes.

After Lik patented his e-cigarette and a Chinese company put it on the market and Congress granted the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products, Philip Morris began showing interest in the devices again. Development continued through the 2000s, with Altria patenting new designs in 2007 and 2009, and eventually releasing the MarkTen in 2013.

“The e-cigarette market is developing much as Philip Morris had hoped back in the 1990s,”  Glantz said.  “While some people do switch from cigarettes to e-cigarettes or quit with them, most smokers who use e-cigarettes keep smoking at the same time. And e-cigarettes are bringing kids into the nicotine market.  The overall effect is to support cigarette sales.”