We’re on the verge of witnessing Big Tobacco co-opt the very sector that was supposed to kill it off.
By David Dayen and cross-posted from The Intercept
Twelve years ago, e-cigarettes couldn’t be found in America. Three years ago, Juul didn’t exist. But last Friday, Marlboro manufacturer Altria bought a 35 percent stake in the vaping juggernaut for $12.8 billion. The deal values Juul at $38 billion, a similar market capitalization to that of Target, MetLife, Delta Air Lines, and Ford. Fifteen hundred Juul employees split a $2 billion dividend as a result, becoming instant millionaires overnight.
Juul was an inviting target for Altria because it has captured close to three-quarters of the total e-cigarette market, according to Nielsen data, up from only 2 percent in 2016. Revenues for Juul increased almost 800 percent from 2017 to 2018, with its most explosive growth happening among teenagers. While e-cigarettes don’t contain cancer-causing tobacco, they do hook users to a drug that’s hard to quit. By one measure, nearly 20 years of falling cigarette use among 12th-graders has been wiped out by the rise of Juul.
The return to nicotine addiction among adolescents is happening alongside the rapid-fire monopolization of a brand-new market. While traditional tobacco companies all tried their hand at e-cigarettes, there was no legacy of dominant players in the sector and no major barrier to rivals. The fact that an industry established a decade ago so quickly whittled down to one dominant player, which an incumbent cigarette giant then bought into, suggests that our Second Gilded Age is a monopoly-creation machine.
This is not how markets are supposed to work. Regulators had — and still have — multiple opportunities to prevent both concentration in the e-cigarette market and profiteering off children. But competition authorities have taken such a hands-off attitude toward the economy, that we’re on the verge of witnessing Big Tobacco co-opt the very sector that was supposed to kill it off…