Ten lessons learned over ten years of covering the novel nicotine industry

This is part of a series of articles celebrating the tenth anniversary of Tamarind Intelligence. 

The more things change, the easier it is to forget that often they stay the same underneath. And that’s strikingly true of the novel nicotine world, where the pace of regulatory change and product innovation is so fast on the surface, yet many of the underlying realities have barely shifted in a decade.

So here, in no particular order, are ten things I’ve learned about our sector in the ten years since I joined the then-newborn Tamarind Intelligence, publisher of ECigIntelligence, TobaccoIntelligence and CannIntelligence. They may not quite count as eternal verities, but they’re as close as you’ll get in a still-young industry.

Fine ideas don’t always translate into effective regulation. The shining example of this is the premarket tobacco product application (PMTA) system at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Apply for marketing authorisation with full scientific justification for a product’s merits, judge each product in isolation on the basis of its public-health effects; what’s not to like in a system that promises such thorough, impartial assessment of actual products, rather than lumping whole categories together or pandering to prejudice? What’s not to like, of course, is that there’s no way it could ever have worked with the quantity of applications received for e-cigarettes and e-liquids, and chaos resulted. A case of perfect being the enemy of good, or simply of theory taking excessive precedence over practice?

The superbrand never turned up. Well, not yet, at least. For a long time, many of us were predicting that one day the jumble of the novel nicotine market – vapour in particular – would be swept aside by one or a few slick, well-resourced brands that understood how to dominate distribution and retail as well as satisfy consumers (and quite probably distribution and marketing would have been even more important than consumer satisfaction). But it never happened. The sector as a whole has yet to have its Marlboro, let alone its Coke or its Apple, though for a while comparisons between Apple and Juul were commonplace. Still, remember it took Apple a long time to develop from a niche computer company into a consumer-electronics titan, so it could yet come to pass.

Nor did pharma, nor did FMCG, and now they probably won’t. Given the obvious linkage between novel nicotine and nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), at one point it seemed a no-brainer that Big Pharma would come into the market. But it was always going to be “next year”, and “next year” never came. The fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) giants never entered this area in any significant way, either. In both cases that taint of tobacco was surely a large factor, and it lingers as strongly as ever in 2024.

The unexpected should be expected. Heated tobacco seemed to be the “obvious” next big thing after e-cigarettes, and indeed it did make great headway in a few markets, but then along came nicotine pouches and there was a third big player in the game that nobody had foreseen a few years earlier. The Middle East seemed set to be a perpetual desert for vaping, and then parts of it suddenly became fertile ground. Nobody was ever going to get very ill from using vapes…and then the vaping-associated lung injury, or Evali, crisis happened…and then, against the odds, that still didn’t have much long-term effect on the US market (even if it did on perceptions). Some overall trends are clear, and at Tamarind we think we’re pretty good at discerning and predicting them. But there are always curveballs, too.

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    A cloud of cigarette smoke still hangs over the novel nicotine sector, regardless of the degree to which Big Tobacco is actually involved in a given category or country, and regardless of the evidence base for a “gateway” between novel nicotine and smoking. What’s crucial to recognise is that this is an emotional association – much harder to shake than a factual one. Likely only time will change it, and it will be a long time before the generation making society’s important decisions is one for which nicotine is not automatically associated with combustibles. It has also led directly to the demonisation of nicotine the substance (as opposed to the delivery mechanisms) in recent years; until around a decade ago, after all, “nicotine” and “cigarettes” were, to nearly everyone, synonymous for practical purposes.

    Consumers of novel nicotine and the public-health world are pulling in different, though not always diametrically opposed, directions. And I’m not only talking here about novel nicotine’s opponents in public health; I’m also talking about those who support or at least tolerate it. For them the benefit of the products is, of course, a reduction in smoking. And that is indeed a benefit at an individual level for consumers, too – even a prime motivator for some. But for many, their strongest motivation is subtly different: to continue consuming nicotine. It’s clear that this group sees this sector as producing what we might call “nicotine continuation products”, not “smoking cessation products”. The gap in perceptions is not unbridgeable (and to be fair, some in the public health field do try very hard to embrace the consumer perspective), but it demands a difficult balancing act by the industry, and it contributes to those confused worries over nicotine.

    “Them” and “us” exist. Product categories and brands may come and go, laws may change, superficial consumer tastes may shift (even if I’d argue that the fundamental ones don’t). But individual, and to a large extent institutional, stakeholders rarely change their views substantively on the key question of whether novel nicotine is, on balance, a public-health negative or positive.

    The kids are always with us. Indeed, I’ve been saying – and only half-flippantly – at conferences and in interviews lately that even if there was not a single under-age nicotine user in the world, we’d collectively have to invent one (or a few hundred thousand) to worry about. The serious point here is that concern over the protection of minors seems to bear no direct relation to actual use by, or risk to, minors. When did you last hear someone say, “We can worry about teen vaping less now because the rate has gone down”? It has taken on a life of its own, become an absolute imperative on its own, regardless of how the problem of under-age use relates in scale to the benefits of adult use. There is realistically very little chance of that changing, and it also illustrates one of the biggest truths about the novel nicotine debate: perception and belief are what really matter, and the loudest voices are the ones that get heard.

    There is hatred. We might like to pretend otherwise, but the inescapable reality is that some supporters of novel nicotine from the public health sphere, some opponents in the same field, and occasional consumers don’t just disagree with the other side, they loathe and despise them (and sometimes they hate Big Tobacco, too). This does not bode well for the chances of compromise.

    But there is also hope for those who want to see novel nicotine products continue to replace smoking, and it lies in the simplest of graphs: user numbers over the years. Despite the arguing, the scaremongering and the often unsatisfactory legal regimes, individual consumers clearly do want these alternatives, and are acting on their desires, whatever anyone else says.

    – Barnaby Page ECigIntelligence staff

    Photo: Aron Visuals

    Barnaby Page

    Editorial director
    Before joining ECigIntelligence in early 2014 as one of its first employees, Barnaby had a 30-year career as a reporter and editor for newspapers, magazines and online services, working in Canada, the US and the Middle East as well as his current British location. He has edited publications covering fields including technology and the advertising industry, and was launch editor of the first large daily online news service in the British regional media. Barnaby also writes on classical music and film for a number of publications. Barnaby manages the editorial and reporting teams and works closely with the analyst teams, to ensure that all content meets high standards of quality and relevance. He also writes for the site occasionally, mostly on science-related issues, and is a member of the Association of British Science Writers.