It’s easy to imagine why investors and tobacco industrialists see links between cigarettes and marijuana. After all, both can be smoked and vaped. Both have mood-altering components. Both plants have a long association with nearly every culture around the globe, and both are relatively easy to mass produce.
But today, nicotine use is in decline while cannabis continues to gain in popularity. This is thanks to more data and anecdotal evidence that marijuana can be a relatively safe medical and recreational substance.
So, it’s no surprise that Big Tobacco looks to be making a move into the cannabis space. And in fact, it turns out they’ve been dabbling in cannabis for quite some time—as far back as the late 1800s.
The question is: Is this good for the cannabis industry? Only if we—the consumer—can have a voice in the conversation.
Like many other industries, Big Tobacco has been interested in the profitability of cannabis. Many see the marijuana industry as resembling the tobacco market prior to 1880, when cigarettes began to be mass-produced and marketed for the first time.
In 2013, the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education along with the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies undertook an exhaustive study. The research, which was facilitated by UC San Francisco (UCSF) and the University of Helsinki, revealed that as early as the 1970s, tobacco companies have been eyeing cannabis “as both a potential and a rival product.”
The jaw-dropping study cited tobacco company documents previously unavailable to the public. They revealed that as early as 1969, three multinational tobacco companies—Philip Morris, British American Tobacco and RJ Reynolds—had all considered manufacturing cigarettes containing cannabis. The tobacco industry undertook numerous confidential tobacco-funded cannabis research projects—with the implied knowledge of the Department of Justice.
In 1970, Philip Morris “applied and was granted a special permit to grow, cultivate and make marijuana extracts” at the same time that 11 states began to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Simultaneously, Time magazine broke a stunning story, stating that “tobacco men are discussing the potentially heavy market for marijuana, and some figure it could be legalized within five years.”
The tobacco industry was infuriated with the Time article, and the magazine ended up issuing an apology. All six major cigarette companies followed up by publicly stating no plans for marketing cannabis were in the works.
But Big Tobacco continued to track the public’s growing acceptance of cannabis. Further confidential studies revealed that marijuana smokers preferred to smoke Kool mentholated cigarettes after getting high, stating that the two substances “just go together.” Tobacco marketing was revamped to capture the youth and African American markets. Further tobacco studies continued into the 1980s comparing long-term cannabis and nicotine use, noting there was no conclusive evidence that smoking cannabis resulted in long-term lung disease.
The advent of smoking tobacco-cannabis blunts and the explosion of the e-cigarette industry continued to pique the interest of Big Tobacco, which initially fought the allegation that cigarettes were considered a gateway drug to marijuana.
But by 2005, a new pattern emerged, with cannabis use often preceding tobacco use. A study of 10,000 teenagers by the American Academy of Pediatrics discovered that the use of e-cigarettes was associated with cannabis use among kids aged 12–14. Regardless of the order of consumption, the establishment of a relationship between cannabis and tobacco has been substantiated.
The UCSF study noted it was nearly impossible for researchers to access any tobacco company documents produced after 1998, because of legal loopholes and claims of attorney-client privilege. But what’s clear from this study is that Big Tobacco has seen cannabis as both a threat and an opportunity for nearly five decades.
Is Big Tobacco making inroads into the cannabis space? The answer is yes—and no.
Recently, Philip Morris International invested $20 million into an Israeli-based firm producing 3D-printed cannabis inhalers. Additionally, the company’s European subsidiary applied for and received a patent for plants “producing terpenes of interest … including … Cannabis sativa.”
Rob Kampia, longtime director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) admitted to discussions with Michigan tobacco interests. They reportedly talked about how to create a law that would build a limited number of licensees, including ones from the tobacco industry, that would handle the transport of marijuana in that state.
Whether it was Kampia’s personal life or the resounding backlash from his overture to Big Tobacco, he was quietly ousted from his position with MPP and another high-profile cannabis organization. Clearly, there’s still resistance within the cannabis movement to any overt partnerships with Big Tobacco.
Like everything in today’s cannabis space, it all comes down to money. Tobacco giants are already diving into the Canadian cannabis investment scene. But in the U.S. they must take a wait-and-see approach, because of the divide between federal cannabis prohibition and the growing number of states legislating medical and recreational marijuana use.
Until these issues are resolved, it’s unlikely tobacco titans like Phillip Morris will openly align themselves directly with the plant. What they’ll do is continue to branch out into subsidiary products such as rolling papers and vape pens. They’ll bolster their public image by enlisting spokespeople such as former Senator and Speaker of the House John Boehner to serve on the boards of cannabis and tobacco companies to win over anti-cannabis legislators. They’ll hire crossover employees who have familiarity with cannabis, and lobby for downgrading the plant’s restrictive Schedule 1 federal classification.
Big Tobacco has figured out the science of what the UCSF study calls a “puff-by-puff” delivery system, which provides tobacco users with consistent products. For cannabis consumers who want more control over their smoking experience, the tobacco industry has the potential to bring high-level technology and expertise to the cartridge and vaping industry.
Big Tobacco has also created one of the world’s most powerful marketing and political lobbying machines. These are tools that some cannabis experts feel could be leveraged to ensure regulated, safe products and workable, consumer-driven legislation.
The tobacco industry has also engaged in decades of research and development. Perhaps they weren’t thrilled with the results, which only confirmed the deadly nature of tobacco consumption.
But if motivated, Big Tobacco has the money and the clout to engage in serious cannabis research. Big Tobacco has deep pockets and long arms that reach into halls of government, and they’ve had an image problem for decades. Could their association with cannabis help an industry, which has been associated with sickness, addiction and death?
Perhaps. But like everything in this rapidly changing world, it’s up to the consumer to drive the conversation, to support sensible legislation and to educate opponents of marijuana legalization to the medical benefits of cannabis.
For years, there have been rumors of large tracts of land in the hills of Northern California, where secret mega-farms are growing marijuana for Philip Morris. We may never know the truth of this rumor.
But in 2016, a satire publication created a fictitious website launching the release of Marlboro M cannabis cigarettes. Many took it as fact that Big Tobacco had finally arrived in the cannabis space. Though the joke was on us, the question is: Who will be laughing if Big Tobacco becomes one of the primary drivers of the cannabis industry?
Photo credit: Daniele Levis Pelusi