Perils of the tipping point of Big Tobacco 2.0 taking over the legal cannabis industry

Andy SL Tan and Shaleen Title

Big Tobacco is increasingly poised to become a significant player in the new legal cannabis industry and potentially crowd out smaller businesses. In January 2016, Philip Morris International invested $20 million in Israel-based Syqe Medical that developed a medical cannabis inhaler. In June 2018, Britain’s Imperial Brands invested through its venture arm in Oxford Cannabinoid Technologies, a cannabis-focus biotechnology firm. In December 2018, Altria, which owns the Marlboro brand of cigarettes, invested $1.8 billion in Cronos, a Canada-based multinational cannabis company. Imperial Brands announced in July 2019 an investment of C$123 million for a 19.9% stake of Canada-based Auxly Cannabis.

As early as the 1970s, Big Tobacco eyed opportunities to participate in the cannabis market. In 1970, then-Philip Morris President George Weissman wrote in an internal memo: “While I am opposed to its [marijuana] use, I recognize that it may be legalized in the near future…we should be in a position to examine: 1. A potential competition, 2. A possible product, 3. At this time, cooperate with the government.” Since then, tobacco companies continued to pursue research on cannabis as a form of product competition, development of products containing cannabis with high sales potential, and forecasting corporate strategies for eventual legalization. In a 1983 industry list titled New Product Ideas, tobacco companies anticipated the opportunity to blend cannabis into cigarettes following government legalization.

Recent momentum in states’ legalization of cannabis in the USA represents a critical tipping point for eventual federal legalization. There is an urgent need for policy advocacy to avoid Big Tobacco taking over the cannabis industry and transforming into Big Tobacco 2.0, with lethal consequences for public health. Tobacco companies are convicted racketeers and intentionally misled the public with false information about the safety of their products for decades. They have systematically targeted marketing of mentholated cigarettes to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBT+ populations. RJ Reynolds named one marketing initiative targeting persons experiencing homelessness and gay people in San Francisco “Project SCUM”, reflecting their contempt of marginalized populations.

The tobacco industry has a demonstrated history of resisting government regulation, co-opting scientific experts, engineering tobacco products to be more addictive, and using substantial marketing budgets to maximize sales and profits of its products. If tobacco companies are permitted to dominate the legal cannabis industry, this will risk exacerbating public health harms on groups that are disproportionately harmed by tobacco use.

There are alternatives available to prevent this bleak future of Big Tobacco 2.0. Massachusetts regulators have limited the sizes of cannabis businesses by strictly enforcing regulations on how many stores or plants one individual can own. This ensures no single company can have an outsized influence on rulemaking and rolling back public health protections. California and Illinois have also reviewed cannabis legalization as an opportunity for restorative justice to repair some of the harms and devastation caused by the War on Drugs on BIPOC communities in those states.

In states where medical and adult cannabis uses are legalized, rigorous public health regulations that restrict packaging and advertising that appeal to children are enforced to prevent youth initiation of cannabis use. Preliminary evidence shows that youth use of cannabis has not increased, and may even have decreased, in states where it has been legalized.

The U.S. Senate Democrats recently indicated strong interest in introducing a comprehensive bill on cannabis reform, including measures to restrict Big Tobacco’s participation in the cannabis industry. On March 17 2021, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced at a press conference, “We don’t want the big tobacco companies and the big liquor companies to swoop in and take over.”

Big Tobacco must be prevented from utilizing its profit-driven product engineering of addictive and deadly products, predatory marketing practices, and anti-regulatory expertise to dominate the legal cannabis industry. Instead of repeating the history of billions of lives lost and tremendous human suffering due to cigarette use, federal policymakers should work with tobacco control and state-level cannabis experts to prevent Big Tobacco 2.0.

Andy Tan is Associate Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. Andy Tan is supported by the National Cancer Institute of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) under R01CA237670 and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (R21DA052421).

Shaleen Title is an Indian-American attorney and longtime drug policy activist who is a Distinguished Cannabis Policy Practitioner in Residence at the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center of the The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. She is supported by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center.

The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of NIH or FDA. Both authors declare no conflict of interest.

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