Is marijuana the future of Big Tobacco?

As smoking continues to decline in the US, the popularity of pot gets higher. Could the Marlboro Man become a stoner?

By The Week Mar 17, 2014 3:03PM John Aziz, The Week

Americans are smoking much less tobacco than they once did. In fact, data from Gallup shows that the proportion of Americans who smoke has roughly halved since it peaked in the 1950s.


As you can see, it has been a long, drawn-out decline. To date, Big Tobacco has shrugged off this trend line with strong growth in developing countries, including India, Russia, and especially China, which now has more than 350 million smokers.

But in the longer run, the declining numbers of smokers in the United States is a damaging development for Big Tobacco and a presage of things to come elsewhere. 


Logically, why would people choose a vice that is widely known to be carcinogenic when there are other mild and less-addictive stimulants -- notably coffee and tea -- that don't have the cancer-causing effects of tobacco? Sure, Big Tobacco -- through clever advertising and product placement -- has over the years made smoking look cool, which has kept business going despite the fact that it was literally killing its consumers. But gradually, generation by generation, the popularity of smoking has melted away in the U.S.


And while tobacco has balanced that decline with a surge of sales in developing countries, it can't rely on that growth forever. The cracks are already beginning to show, in fact. China, for instance, is now moving to ban smoking in public. As developing countries begin to treat smoking as a public health menace, a decline in tobacco consumption, like America's, will almost invariably follow.


So what's Big Tobacco -- facing a future of government trying to regulate it out of existence, declining global tobacco usage rates, and the prospect of more lawsuits -- to do? Sell e-cigarettes? E-cigarettes are addictive and contain carcinogenic chemicals, too, although at much lower levels than cigarettes. Get out of the recreational drug industry altogether? Maybe -- considering tobacco killed 100 million people in the 20th century, that might be a good idea. But another option to avoid fading away is to get into the ascendant marijuana industry.


While the popularity of tobacco has shot downward, the popularity of marijuana is shooting upward, following medical legalization in 20 states and recreational legalization in Colorado and Washington. A majority of Americans -- a staggering 58 percent -- now believe pot should be legalized.


And marijuana usage is rising, too. Recent data from Pew shows that 12 percent of Americans have used marijuana in the last year, up from 6.9 percent in 2010 and 6.8 percent in 2007. That's impressive growth, and with more states, including New York, Tennessee, and Arizona, considering legalization laws, this growth is likely to continue, creating new business opportunities.


Of course, Big Tobacco has thus far stayed out, not least because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, while the highly addictive and cancer-causing tobacco is not.


In 2012, Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA (PM), the maker of Marlboro, was not forthcoming when asked about the future intentions of the nation's largest tobacco company, telling CBS: "Tobacco companies are in the business of manufacturing and marketing tobacco products."


And Bryan Hatchell, a spokesman for the second-largest cigarette maker, Reynolds American (RAI), maker of Camel and Pall Mall, told CBS: "Reynolds American has no plans to produce or market marijuana products in either of those states," He added: "It's not part of our strategy."


Now, with legal marijuana already a $1.43 billion market and growing at a monster rate of 64 percent per year, the incentives are clearly growing, especially with the U.S. government increasingly turning a blind eye when state laws conflict with federal ones. President Obama, in fact, seems to be warming to the idea of full legalization, claiming marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol, a claim drug harm assessments support.


Of course, there are still risks. Marijuana consumption has been linked to memory loss and the development of schizophrenia, although other research disputes the schizophrenia link. Would Big Tobacco want to risk paying out millions to schizophrenia sufferers? Getting into the marijuana industry carries that risk.


And there is already another debate over whether smoking marijuana causes cancer -- the evidence, so far, is inconclusive. Marijuana smoke contains some of the same chemicals in tobacco smoke, including benzyprene, which is known to be carcinogenic.


But multiple studies have shown that both the hallucinogenic THC compound, as well as other cannabinoid compounds in marijuana, have anti-cancer properties. And marijuana users do not have to smoke it to experience its effects -- it can also be vaporized, eaten, or drunk as a liquid.


Is marijuana the future of the tobacco industry? I don't know. If governments continue to treat smoking as a public health menace, then the tobacco industry may not have a future at all. The costs to public health from smoking have been simply enormous -- $132.5 billion in the United States alone. But if the popularity of marijuana continues to rise, that could give Big Tobacco a way out of a business in decline, and into one that is growing.


Editor's note: This article originally overstated the potential cancer-causing effects of e-cigarettes. It has since been corrected.

More from

Mar 17, 2014 3:38PM
sooner or later, it's only a matter of time before marijuana is legal nationwide. Big business and the government alike can see the obvious financial gains. The taxes and proceeds from sales can and should do a lot of good. The economy can certainly use the boost.
Mar 17, 2014 4:19PM
Oh yeah,
   We can trust big tobacco. Just like pharmaceutical companies, the DEA and our local police.
Trust them to f#@$ people over and lie about it, too.

Mar 17, 2014 4:36PM
Cannabis does a lot more than just getting high. This article is forgetting the other beneficial cannabis will bring when its legalized. You can make clothes/shoes, paper( which was made with hemp before it became illegal), rope, its edible(good protein and amino acids) and all the other resources you can use from this plant. Plus its easy to grow, its a weed(hence the name). Plus, tobacco companies were already growing pot back in the day before the whole reefer madness and making it illegal. I believe if this plant is legalized it will reshape the economy for the better. 
Mar 17, 2014 4:45PM
If tabacco companies start selling pot, they will put something in it to make it addictive. Just like they do in their tabacco.
Mar 17, 2014 4:16PM
Mariju****galization should be designed to get the current Mexican gangster death merchants out of the market, and to prevent the old American corporate death merchants from cornering it.   
The superior smoking material can be grown in anyone's backyard.  As such it is an egalitarian smoking material, really "All-American".  
When it is grown in your own backyard… no tax revenues for unfortunate ill-conceived government programs, and no profit for the corporate death merchants… just as it should be.  
Perhaps the corporations will want to stick to manufacturing and marketing hashish, the cannabis product that is more difficult to produce at home.  
Have a nice day. 
Mar 17, 2014 4:30PM
I say legalize and decriminalize marijuana. It will be another source of income for our country, we tax it, regulate it, hell I even so no to having it imported. Only home grown pot should be legal, simply because when big business gets their hands on marijuana, they would be insistent on importing it cheaply, costing more jobs. But having it home grown create jobs.
Mar 17, 2014 5:04PM
No more Marlboro it's the Marlboro Duuuuuude!
Mar 17, 2014 5:51PM
Our government has patented the CBD portion of marijuana.  CBD is the part of the plant that has a myriad of health benefits including powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-neuralgic, and anti-epilepsy effects.  Yet, in their infinite wisdom, they also classified it as a Schedule I controlled substance and state it has "zero health benefits".
Educated marijuana growers in the US are designing plants that are extremely low in THC (0.5%) and high in CBD because it has been found that the CBD molecule must have at least trace amounts of THC for it to be effective as a medicine.  Every modern country in the world is conducting clinical trials except the US because of its controlled substance classification.  
The US government is running the biggest scam going.  As soon as a blockbuster "drug" is developed from the marijuana plant, the US government will insist on controlling that interest in the US.  And the FDA is a patsy for the pharmaceutical companies, who, in turn, control our politicians.  Bottom line is they are going to take something that is completely natural and bastardize it under the name of Uncle Sam, big pharma, and the FDA.  What a sham.  Disgusting.
Mar 17, 2014 4:14PM
If marijuana is legalized across the entire country, Mexico's economy will completely melt down and their GNP will go to 33% of it's present total.  Then we can trade them the marijuana industry for all the factories they took from us.  It's called NAFTA.
Mar 17, 2014 4:48PM
 I say make it all legal and tax it accordingly.  Let's face it.  The war on drugs has been lost a LONG time ago and the people who want to do drugs, DO IT now even though it is illegal.  By making it legal, you can monitor the quality, tax it for local / federal revenue and allow our police to focus on other issues in our neighborhoods. "No stress, no seeds, no stems, no sticks!" - Snoop Dog 
Mar 17, 2014 3:58PM

want a border fence? just make pot legal/taxed in border states.

it will go up in hours.

Mar 17, 2014 5:00PM

As long as some law isn't passed that only one or two corporations are allowed to produce marijuana, then I can't see them doing any real harm to the industry.  Take Canada for instance, you have a Conservative Prime Minister who has his head buried in the 30's, and a big ol' corporate slong buried in his behind.  Mandatory minimum prison terms for even growing your own forcing everyone to buy from single corporate producer.  "Have cancer and your growing your own medicine because you can't afford to buy it?  Here's six months minimum for you in jail!  Oh, you rent your home?  Year minimum for you dirtbag!"


Its nice to see marijuana use increase and the general public becoming more educated in the fact that marijuana is a safer alternative to many substances.  It should be legal for recreational purposes everywhere.  Not just for the savings in not locking up nonviolent marijuana offenders, but as a means of social harm reduction by providing a safer recreational choice than alcohol.

Mar 17, 2014 9:15PM

Its going to take a committee of Senators, Congressman and tax lawyers to figure this out.  Taxing the back yard farmer is the challenge.  While some may challenge the addictive power of Pot, No one is doubting the Govt, addiction to tax revenue. Southern elected officials will need some way to insure that the current tobacco growers will be allowed to grow Mary Jane in the same fields.  It would be un-American to allow campaign donating farmers to go broke if everyone can have a patio pot plant. So look for national pot sales to become reality.  Just don't look for it soon.  There are a lot of major players and billions at stake. 

As for me, I just want a small bake shop where I can sell atomic brownies.   Then my customers can claim " I never inhaled".

Mar 17, 2014 11:07PM
Cost for smoking that is BS. 2nd the only thing in smoking that caused such illness is the FDA approved 3,000 chemicals in the tobacco,  Hmm fda approved huh. The tobacco itself is not bad. The Government also help prompt the cigarette industry to put nice addictive chemicals in those cigs. So to the unknowing indoctrinated zombies in life.  It's all been engineered to keep the health care system nice and rich. Pretending they want you to stop smoking yeah right. If they were so concerned they would totally ban cigarettes altogether.  
Mar 18, 2014 12:58AM
Mar 17, 2014 4:58PM
high cost will keep the drug dealers dealing lol
Mar 18, 2014 7:05AM
I don't think that thc is considered a hallucinogenic. Psychoactive maybe, but not hallucinongenic
Mar 17, 2014 4:06PM
Mar 17, 2014 5:23PM
I'm not against legalizing marijuana or prostitution, but I'm against thinking that either one should be taxed in an effort to lower the overall tax burden  The government should not be trusted to collect taxes as most of the House and Senate  would sell their sisters into prostitution if it would help the redistribution of income.
Mar 17, 2014 3:47PM

You betcha!!!

The former "Old Gold" will now be called "Acapulco Gold."

AND, everyone thought that RJ Reynolds and Phillip-Morris

would be history when the "NO SMOKING" signs went up.

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