Big Tobacco
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Big Tobacco is trying to get into cannabis. Photo: Ecem Deniz

Big Tobacco is trying to get into cannabis. Photo:
Ecem Deniz

Tobacco behemoth Imperial Brands has appointed an expert in medical cannabis to its board. Simon Langelier, now an executive director, is the chairman of Canadian-based PharmaCielo, which produces cannabis oil for medical purposes. Until 2015, he had spent three decades working for Philip Morris, a Big Tobacco rival, where he was in charge of next generation products. Imperial Brands’ competitors, Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco in the United Kingdom and Altria and Reynolds American in the United States, are likely to follow suit.

Smoking is unfashionable

Imperial Brands changed its name from Imperial Tobacco 18 months ago because tobacco is no longer respectable, at least in the West. 19.9 percent of people in England smoked in 2010 compared to 15.5 percent in 2016. The fall affected all ages, but particularly 18- to 24-year-olds. The contrast with 1974, when nearly half of adults smoked, is striking. Encouragingly for Big Tobacco, smoking remains the largest cause of early preventable death in the United Kingdom. It is linked to 17 forms of cancer and 79,000 people perished for this reason in 2015 – 16 percent of the total.

Gone are the days when Big Tobacco sponsored sporting events and heroes on the big screen smoked – for this latter, witness the original and the reboot of Ghostbusters. Tobacco is taxed heavily and there are restrictions on how it is sold, with larger stockists in the United Kingdom keeping baccy products in a cupboard and packets bearing graphic warnings. Big Tobacco attempted to turn its attentions to the developing world, but even there, taxes are rising and regulations are tightening. The World Health Organisation has taken an interest.

Why Big Tobacco needs to get into cannabis

So it made sense for Big Tobacco to seek new revenue streams. Research into medical marijuana has increased and political resistance has eroded. Recreational cannabis is available in Uruguay and eight US states. (For a quiet life, we’ll call Washington a state.) This product can be taxed, and it would be so much nicer to take the industry out of the hands of criminals. Imagine the progress that would result if Big Tobacco unleashed its lobbying cash.

In those places where policy towards cannabis has relaxed, methods of consuming it other than with tobacco have risen. Heated tobacco devices, once disdained by Imperial Brands but championed by Philip Morris, are one option; Imperial is on record as stating it could bring a product to market within three months. For Imperial Brands, Langelier’s experience of vaping and other smokeless nicotine products will prove useful and Big Tobacco has the necessary production and distribution networks, including growing facilities, but the market for cannabis might be tough for it to crack and progress will be slow. Another sign o’ the times has occurred in Massachusetts, where tobacco companies are lobbying for marijuana to be sold through them on the basis that there is no need to “reinvent the wheel,” as the head of a large tobacco trade group put it. Cannabis growers are up in arms.

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