E-Cigarettes: Imperial Tobacco
Note: Imperial Tobacco changed its name to Imperial Brands in 2016. Here we use ‘Imperial’ for both. Fontem Ventures is a wholly owned subsidiary, so we refer here to the parent company (Imperial), except where it is helpful to specify Fontem Venture’s role (for example where the subsidiary initiated legal action, or lobbying activity). Renaming companies and setting up subsidiaries not only performs a business function, but can help tobacco companies to distance elements of their business from their core activity of selling tobacco.
Initially Imperial’s markets were the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), France and Italy. Since the beginning of 2018 it has expanded into Western and Eastern Europe, Russia and Canada, and launched a nicotine free e-cigarette in Japan. In November 2019 Imperial reported that blu was on sale in 16 countries.
- 1 Acquired E-Cigarette Companies
- 2 Interests in E-Liquid Companies
- 3 Patent Cases
- 4 Product Innovation
- 5 Applying for FDA Approval
- 6 Key Markets
- 7 Marketing Strategies
- 8 Lobbying Decision Makers for Fewer Restrictions
- 9 Astroturfing Campaign: European Union's Citizens' Initiative
- 10 Pricing, Profitability and Market Share
- 11 E-Cigarettes “Additive” To Tobacco Business
- 12 A New Strategy But Business As Usual
- 13 TobaccoTactics Resources
- 14 Relevant Links
- 15 Notes
Acquired E-Cigarette Companies
In August 2013, Imperial paid US$75 million to acquire Hon Lik's e-cigarette company Dragonite, including its Research & Development facility in Beijing. Lik, a Chinese pharmacist, is credited with inventing the first e-cigarette in 2003.
The first e-cigarette launched in 2014 by Imperial in the UK was Puritane, a result of its collaboration with Hon Lik. Sold in Boots pharmacies this product was initially submitted for licensing as a medical device in the UK (see below).
The company acquired the blu brand when US tobacco company Reynolds American Inc. (RAI) purchased another US tobacco company Lorillard in July 2014. Amidst antitrust concerns that the merger would give RJ Reynolds an unfair advantage over the US nicotine market, Reynolds sold blu (along with cigarette brands Kool, Salem and Winston, and a manufacturing plant) to Imperial for US$7.1 billion. When speaking of the company's new acquisition, Imperial 's chief executive Alison Cooper said, "This is a great opportunity to transform our U.S. business and secure a significant presence in the world’s largest accessible profit pool."
Imperial bought the Austrian e-cigarette company Von Erl in June 2017, for GB£26.7 million (around US$34.4 million). This deal included Von Erl’s US subsidiaries. The ‘My VonErl’ e-cigarette was reportedly relaunched as ‘myblu’ in 2018.
Blu became Imperial’s flagship brand in 2018 which was described as a “transformative year by Imperial.
- For more product information see E-Cigarettes: Imperial's Blu
Interests in E-Liquid Companies
- Nerudia – Acquired by Imperial in November 2017. The owners of Nerudia had sold a previous company CN Creative to British American Tobacco in 2012. By 2019, Nerudia’s role was supporting Fontem Ventures with product innovation and its website stated that it was the “home of R&D for Next Generation Products (NGPs)”.
- Cosmic Fog - In March 2018, Imperial acquired a stake in this US e-liquid business. According to market research company Euromonitor International, Cosmic Fog was selling its products in 60 countries, including 5,000 vape stores in the US. Imperial did not disclose the size of the share.
In March 2014, Imperial launched legal proceedings (as Fontem Ventures) over patents in California against nine of its American e-cigarette rival companies, including the top three: Lorillard's Blu Ecigs (now owned by Imperial), NJOY, and Logic (acquired by Japan Tobacco International in July 2015). The lawsuits alleged patent infringement, citing four intellectual property patents that were purchased as a part of its Dragonite acquisition. The majority of the cases were settled out of court in 2015 and 2016.
Fontem Ventures also sued Altria subsidiary Nu Mark in 2016, over its MarkTen and GreenSmoke e-cigarettes, a case which was settled out of court in 2017. In October 2018, Fontem settled four lawsuits for patent infringement it had instigated against RJ Reynolds (BAT).
From Medical Device to Lifestyle Product
Puritane was initially marketed as a healthcare product. Imperial closed a deal with Boots pharmacies to sell the Puritane brand throughout its pharmacies in the UK. Imperial (through Fontem Ventures) applied to the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in 2014 to have Puritane licenced as a medical device. If successful, this would have allowed the company to market the product with reduced risk claims. In April 2017, in response to a Freedom of Information request by the University of Bath's Tobacco Control Research Group, the MHRA confirmed that “according to our licencing records there are no currently granted licences for any product named ‘Puritane’, nor are there any licences held by Fontem Ventures”. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that if Fontem Ventures had lodged an application for Puritane in 2014, the application was unsuccessful or had expired.
A second e-cigarette called JAI was launched in France and Italy in March 2015. Unlike Puritane, Imperial positioned JAI as a lifestyle product, marketing it through tobacconists. PR company Aspect Consulting helped launch the e-cigarette in France through a mix of “online, traditional media and trade communication activities”. Like Puritane, JAI was also discontinued.
Similar to cigarettes, flavour is an important product innovation tool to boost e-cigarettes sales. In 2019, Imperial marketed a variety of flavoured e-liquids, including: Peach Passion, Vanilla Creme, Mint Chocolate, Tropic Tonic, Berry Swirl, and Caramel Café (see image 1). Like other companies, Imperial has been accused of using e-cigarette flavours that are attractive to children and young people. Evidence shows that fruit and menthol-flavoured e-cigarettes are more appealing to young people than tobacco flavoured e-cigarettes. In a 2015 submission to the Australian Senate inquiry into ‘Personal choice and community impacts’, Imperial (as Fontem Ventures) declared that: “flavours that clearly appeal primarily to minors (e.g. candy flavours, bubblegum, milkshake) should not be marketed”. (In line with its policy, Imperial (Fontem) does not market these particular flavours, but it does market fruit and menthol flavours).
After a rapid increase in the numbers of children and young people using e-cigarettes in the US, in 2018 the FDA sent warning letters and penalties to retailers found to have sold e-cigarette products to children. In September 2018, the FDA wrote to Fontem Ventures giving the company 60 days to provide a written plan to “address the rate of youth use of Blu products”.(Similar letters were sent to JUUL Labs, Altria, Reynolds American Inc. (RAI) and JTI).
While Imperial subsequently announced plans to raise minimum age requirements on its US websites (to 21), and encourage retailers to use age verification systems, it continued to market a range of flavours such as “honeymoon”, “neon dream” and “melon time”. The company denied that fruit flavours attracted children to e-cigarettes and blamed other companies, in particular JUUL Labs for the rise in youth use. Imperial also said to be taking the issue “very seriously”, and that it was developing technological solutions such as child locks and geofencing. As of November 2019 it was not clear which, if any, of these new measures had been put in place. Imperial published a pre-emptive statement on the Fontem Ventures’ website, before the FDA had concluded its investigations or issued its guidance, saying that:
“…we believe the forthcoming FDA Guidance restricting the sale of flavoured e-vapour products will have unintended consequences. These include deterring adult smokers from trying vaping, potentially encouraging adult vapers to return to smoking, growth in DIY or illicit flavour-making, and the potential development of an illicit trade in flavoured e-liquids or flavour agents.”
No supporting evidence was given for these claims in the statement. Claims of ‘unintended consequences’ are made repeatedly by tobacco companies when [against regulation], including that the regulations will not work, or that they will lead to an increase in illicit trade.
Blu e-liquid products are available in different nicotine concentrations in different countries, according to national regulations. In the European Union (EU), the highest permissible level of nicotine in e-cigarettes is 20mg/ml (20%). Imperial states on the UK blu website that its e-liquids come in a choice of nicotine level of 0.8% (around 9 mg/ml) or 1.6% (around 16 mg/ml).
In July 2018 Imperial launched a range of “Intense” tobacco and menthol flavoured e-liquid capsules for use in myblu. This range of e-liquids contain nicotine salts (see Image 2), which are created when ‘freebase’ nicotine is dissolved in acid. This process can make a higher dose of nicotine more palatable, and so allow higher doses of more concentrated nicotine to be consumed. On blu’s Uk website, the Intense capsules all contain 18mg of nicotine. At the same time, Imperial launched another range of e-liquids in the US, called “Salt of the Earth”, for use in refillable devices. Although this range was on sale at independent US online retailers (in 24 and 48 mg/ml strengths), in November 2019 they were not available on blu’s US website.
In Japan the sale of nicotine liquids is banned. In June 2018, Imperial launched a version of myblu in Japan, using flavoured liquids without nicotine. According to Euromonitor, Imperial consequently captured 90% of the Japanese market. However this market was at the time very small (around US$1.1 million in value, compared to the huge and fast growing Heated Tobacco Products (HTP) market worth US$ 7.4 billion, in which Imperial at the time had no share).ref name=eurvapour/>
- For more information on Imperial’s HTPs see Next Generation Products: Imperial Tobacco.
On the Nerudia website Imperial invites others to let them know about “novel electronic vapour products” that they have developed as well as HTPs and the associated areas including batteries, heating systems, and packaging. In 2019, areas of interest for e-cigarettes were listed as:
- “Enhancing nicotine delivery
- Enhancing flavour delivery
- New mechanisms of vapour generation
- New product formats
- New formulations”
Applying for FDA Approval
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires companies to submit a Premarket Tobacco Product Application (PMTA) for any new e-cigarettes they wish to sell. As a large number of products were coming onto the market without approval, the FDA required that companies needed to submit applications for those already on the market as of 8 August 2016. As long as a PMTA was submitted within ten months, the products could remain on sale and be marketed. When Imperial launched myblu in the US in 2018, a spokesperson from Fontem Ventures said that as it was a version of a similar e-cigarette (My VonErl) sold by a company they had acquired a year earlier, it therefore complied with FDA rules.  However, Reuters reported that company advertising indicated that the new myblu e-cigarette contained a higher concentration of nicotine than the Von Erl product, at least 40 mg/mL. FDA defines such products with higher concentrations of nicotine as new products, which are therefore subject to FDA review.
As of October 2019, Imperial had not submitted a PMTA for blu, but has said that it intends to do so by May 2020.
Between 2014 and 2017, Imperial’s e-cigarettes were sold in four main markets: US, UK, France and Italy.By 2016, Imperial reported that blu was the second largest e-cigarette brand in the US and UK markets.
In 2018, Imperial began selling its e-cigarettes Russia, Bulgaria and Canada. In 2019, blu went on sale in Spain. After VonErl was rebranded as myblu, it became the bestselling brand in Austria, displacing independent brand nikoBlue. By November 2019 the company reported that myblu was available in 16 markets, although it did not detail which. See below for more on Imperial’s market share.
Marketing strategies used by the industry to promote tobacco products and tobacco use have been banned under Article 13 of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC). They are however being used to promote e-cigarettes, by targeting individuals with promotional material; using product displays and branding at social venues like shopping centres; and offering free samples and taste testing. In 2015, Euromonitor labelled Imperial’s blu as “one of the most marketed vapour product brands in the UK”, referring to the brand’s strong presence on British television and point-of-sales displays in small retailers and supermarkets.
As e-cigarette advertising has become more restricted, in Europe and elsewhere, tobacco companies have become more creative. Since 2015, Imperial (Fontem) has worked with advertising agencies to develop new marketing campaigns for its e-cigarettes, including paid promotional content in magazines. Like other tobacco companies, it is increasingly using social activities (including established music events and pop-ups), and paid influencers, called “brand ambassadors”, to promote its products on social media. Consequently Imperial has also been criticised for targeting young people, an accusation which Imperial denies.
It has also used campaigns that mimic public health approaches to behaviour change and harm reduction, as detailed below.
Fake Warning Labels (US, 2017)
In 2018 researchers in the US exposed an advertising campaign used ahead of the introduction of new nicotine warning labels on packets. Imperial had run an advertising campaign for blu in popular magazines in 2017, titled “Something Better”, which used fake warning labels. Statements such as ‘IMPORTANT: Vaping blu smells good’, ‘IMPORTANT: contains flavour’ , and ‘IMPORTANT: Less harmful to your wallet’ were printed in boxes next to images of people vaping, mimicked both the proposed nicotine warning labels (now mandatory in the US) and the language of harm reduction. A study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University, using these advertisements, concluded that “Adolescents viewing an advertisement with a fake warning were less likely to recall the advertisement’s actual warning or health risks”. The company was accused of potentially desensitising consumers to the real risks associated with nicotine.
“Pledge World” (Global, 2018)
In December 2018, blu created an Instagram site called ‘Pledge World’ containing attractive and inspirational images and encouraging people to “make a pledge” to fulfil a “lifelong ambition” and “#OWNIT. The Instagram page did not make it clear that it was a brand campaign for blu. However, a link in the bio led to the main website, which was identifiable as relating to e-cigarettes.
When it was launched in April 2019 the website urged visitors to make a pledge to make a change:
“This is it. The beginning of a potentially life-changing journey. Tell us your pledge, your dream, your goal; and we could help you #OWNIT. Are you ready?”
It is not clear how blu intended to make lasting change in peoples’ lives. It did, however, appear to collect participants’ personal data, including names, addresses, phone numbers and birthdays, as well as Instagram handles.
The last post on the Instagram page appeared to be at the end of May, and the number of followers had reached just under 5,500 (a small figure in terms of Instagram campaigns), by which time the main website stated that it was no longer accepting entries. In October 2019 the UK version of the website simply contained a “coming soon” holding page, and it was not clear if this campaign was still active.
“Blutopia” at Festivals (UK, 2019)
In 2019, Imperial used their contracted advertising agency (MSQ Partners) and a ‘brand experience’ company (Hyperactive) to create “an immersive, hedonistic, vaping nirvana experience” at big summer music festivals in the UK.
According to Campaign Magazine:
“"Blutopia" is described as an "immersive brand world" where visitors can explore Blu flavours. Guests will be invited into secret multi-sensory flavour rooms that enhance their flavour experiences using sound, light and scents. The rooms will include flavours such as apple and cherry crush.”
Blu’s brand planning manager in the UK, Pete Blackman, said that when people were socialising and smoking outside in the warm weather, the company wanted to “take over those social moments and put Blu in front of mind”.
Promoting the blu ‘club’ (Europe, 2019)
In the UK and Ireland in 2019, a widespread campaign for myblu was launched using billboards, taxis and buses, with graphic images and phrases including “I blu do you?” and “you blu too? who knew?” As well as outdoor advertising, the product was promoted on social media, in pop up shops and at events, with the strategy being to “normalise vaping at social occasions”.
Blackman, blu’s brand planning manager, said that the idea was to create the feeling of a club:
“Vaping culture has grown rapidly in the UK, with many vapers considering themselves to almost be in the know on something new and different and as a result, part of a special club…This campaign plays on that idea by creating a unique language and identity that resonates with vapers, while making the club open to everyone looking to switch”
In September 2019, perhaps in response to increasing public and government concern over the use of e-cigarettes by young people (see below), Imperial launched a more information-based marketing campaign in the US. This promoted myblu to “help existing adult smokers understand that they now have a choice about how they consume nicotine”.
- For examples of Imperial’s earlier advertising campaigns see E-Cigarettes: Marketing Blu.
Aggressive price promotions are also used as an incentive for current, or potential, customers, for example coupons enclosed with a product purchased, or discounted products. In 2019, a blu promotion was offering e-cigarette devices for US$1, instead of the usual retail prices of US$19.99. For more background information on e-cigarette promotion and marketing, go to E-cigarettes: Marketing and E-cigarettes: Marketing Rules.
Lobbying Decision Makers for Fewer Restrictions
In 2019, when the safety of e-cigarettes was being widely debated, Imperial said that they to supported e-cigarette regulation. Richard Hill, CEO Fontem Ventures, stated in October: "We’re up for it… we believe that we can demonstrate that our products can operate in the interest of national health." However, in a report published on its website in 2018, the company had stated:
“As vapour products do not contain tobacco, they should be excluded from all existing and future tobacco legislation, including excise”.
Since the first NGP products hit the market, tobacco companies have lobbied for more favourable marketing and tax regulations than cigarettes. Imperial has lobbied decision makers, through Fontem Ventures, in the UK and internationally (including where it does not yet sell its products) to oppose tougher regulations on e-cigarettes. As well as lobbying decision makers directly, it has also lobbied through trade organisations, and contracted public relations (PR) companies including: Instinctif Partners (2018/19, see lobbing section below); Aspect Consulting (2015 and 2017); and FTI Consulting (2015/16)
- New Zealand: Smoking Ban In Cars (2019) - Imperial made a submission to the New Zealand Government’s Health Select Committee in August 2019, over a proposed ban on smoking in cars. Imperial’s Head of Corporate and Legal Affairs, Kirsten Daggar-Nickson, argued that it was not appropriate to include e-cigarettes in the bill, as they don't produce smoke. She said that the company’s e-cigarettes were aimed at "people who have tried absolutely everything and cannot quit", and not at new smokers. However, when challenged by the Committee as to what happens to their business if their existing customers quit (or die), she went on to say that their intention was to "transition them to next-generation products" and therefore switch, rather than quit. Imperial have made it clear to investors that e-cigarettes are ‘additive’ to their business. (See below for more on Imperial’s business strategy)
- Norway: Consultation on the Implementation of the European Union Tobacco Products Directive (TPD, 2016) - Despite not selling its e-cigarettes in Norway, Imperial (as Fontem) responded to a consultation by the Norwegian Department of Health on the national implementation of the TPD. In its submission, the company asserted that e-cigarettes offered a “huge public health benefit”, and that pharmaceutical-type restrictions will unintentionally make smokers continue to use tobacco, or see them turn to illegal e-cigarettes.
- Wales: Public Health Bill (2015) - Lobbied the Welsh government against the inclusion of e-cigarettes in existing smoke-free regulations, arguing that it would force vapers to use their e-cigarette in designated smoking areas where they would be exposed to second-hand smoke. It argued that the proposed Bill was based entirely on “precautionary impulse and not scientific evidence”.
- Australia: Senate Inquiry (2015) - Told an Australian Senate inquiry that “E-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, do not emit smoke and do not involve any combustion. It is therefore unfair and inappropriate to conflate them with tobacco products.
- International: COP 8 (2018) - Imperial is a member of the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA), along with other tobacco companies, and its Senior UK Government Affairs Manager has a seat on the board. UKVIA lobbied against e-cigarette regulation at the 8th WHO FCTC Conference of the Parties (COP 8) in 2018. For more details see UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA)
- Scotland: Members of Scottish Parliament (2017-2019)
In 2017, public relations company Aspect Consulting, contacted Scottish Members of Parliament (MSPs) to promote the alleged health benefits of e-cigarettes. Although the company disclosed that it acted on behalf of Fontem Ventures, it failed to mention that Fontem was a subsidiary of Imperial Tobacco. Despite lack of conclusive evidence, Aspect Consulting claimed that e-cigarettes acted as a barrier to tobacco use. Imperial lobbyist Lindsay Mennell Keating made multiple approaches to MSPs in 2018, including Richard Lyle, and further meetings were registered in March 2019. All these instances of lobbying were recorded as being in relation to e-cigarettes.
Astroturfing Campaign: European Union's Citizens' Initiative
In February 2019, Imperial funded and promoted a European Union (EU) Commission’s Citizens Initiative campaign, called “Let's demand smarter vaping regulation!”. This aimed to revoke article 20 of the EU Tobacco Products Directive, which relates to the regulation of e-cigarettes”. The European Citizens’ Initiative is a democratic tool meant to benefit individuals, or groups of individuals, with rules in place to exclude companies or organisations. However, one of the sponsors of the ‘smarter vaping regulations’ initiative was Valerio Forconi, Head of EU Corporate Affairs and registered lobbyist for Imperial Tobacco, and Imperial made the initial donation of €10,000 (around GB£8,700) to set up the campaign.
Imperial also set up a website called ‘Vaping is NOT Tobacco’, launched in April 2019, to promote the petition and enable people to sign it direct from the site. It provided forms for visitors to contact their Member of the European Parliament (MEP):
“Don't hesitate to let them know how vaping products improved your life by helping you switch from tobacco. That way, when they deal with the regulation of these products, they will remember your stand on the topic”.
Brandon Mitchener, Managing Partner at Instinctif Partners the PR company contracted by Imperial to set up the campaign, was listed as the only Team Member of the ‘Vaping is NOT Tobacco’ Facebook page. Neither the campaign’s Facebook page nor its Twitter bio (@vapeNOTtobacco) declared a link to Instinctif or Imperial.
- “The average consumer in the UK spends about £2 on his habit on a daily basis, versus £5 on cigarettes. The opportunity for pricing, even with excise coming in, is quite significant.”
Van Benthem also indicated that the company would seek to reduce retailer margins on e-cigarettes and achieve cost reduction through economies of scale and focusing on online sales.
According to Euromonitor , Imperial’s share of the global e-cigarette market (by value) fell from 4.7% in 2015 to 3.2% in 2018. Over the same period the market had more than doubled in value from US$6.8 billion to over US$15.6 billion.
Imperial’s share of the US market fell dramatically from 10.7% in 2015, to 4.7% in 2018. Like the other international tobacco companies, Imperial lost significant market share in the US to JUUL Labs, whose share rose from 4% to 18.6%.
In the UK market, Euromonitor data shows that, after falling to 1.4% in 2015, Imperial’s share increased to 4.3% in 2018. Tobacco company sales figures, published in investor reports and presentations, tend to be higher than those reported by market research companies. Imperial reported their share of UK sales as 16% in 2016. Similar figures produced by British American Tobacco (BAT) in 2018, put Imperial at the same share (16%), although in second place behind BAT (at 41%). As well as promoting online sales through the blu website, Imperial targeted independent retailers in the UK with training and product information, to help them increase sales. Imperial’s UK’s head of NGP sales for blu, Andrew Miller, said in 2018:
“Blu is determined to ensure that independent retailers are fully up to speed with this category. In a crowded marketplace filled with different brands, systems and flavours, many consumers looking to switch to vaping are understandably confused, and look to their local retailers for buying advice”.
2018 figures from Euromonitor put Imperial’s share at 4.6% in France, 3% in Italy, and 2.5% in its new Bulgarian market. It also had 1% of the Russian e-cigarette market, which was dominated by JTI brand Logic. Sales in Canada were yet to register.
In its 2018 annual report, Imperial credited blu with increasing the net revenue from its NGP business “substantially to £200m or 2.6 per cent of tobacco & NGP net revenue”. However investment in blu was having a negative impact on its operating profits, which had fallen by 4.4%.”
E-Cigarettes “Additive” To Tobacco Business
Like British American Tobacco Imperial Tobacco has described e-cigarettes as adding to the company’s revenue, rather than replacing cigarettes. Imperial Chief Executive Alison Cooper has stated, on several occasions, that the company's vaping products are an “additive business on top of that of tobacco delivery”.
Imperial continues to develop tobacco products to appeal to both non-smokers, and those who smoke and vape (‘dual’ or ‘poly’ users). It launched its ‘Riverstone’ brand of rolling tobacco in the UK in October 2018. According to Talking Retail, Imperial described it as:
“a high-quality, easy-to-roll blend of tobacco at an affordable price, designed to appeal to new smokers as well as dualists”.
In May 2019, the company reported that Riverstone’s share of the market had grown. The product was relaunched in November 2019, promoted to retailers as the UK’s first ‘combi-pack’ (containing cigarette papers and filters). 
A New Strategy But Business As Usual
In October 2019, after issuing a profit warning, Imperial announced that Chief Executive Alison Cooper would be stepping down. In November 2019, Imperial announced that it would be changing strategy and “improving growth in NGP with greater discipline and a more tightly focused business model.”
This would involve “developing closer relationships with consumers online” and “an enhanced product and brand refresh ahead of blu 2.0”.  Imperial also announced its intention to focus on:
“promoting the right regulatory framework for vapour; one that raises product standards, providing assurance to smokers and better visibility for us on returns”. 
Tobacco remains central to Imperial’s business model. The main goals remain maximising growth and delivering returns to shareholders, irrespective of product or any public health gains (see image 3).
- Fontem Ventures
- E-Cigarettes: Imperial's Blu
- E-Cigarettes: Marketing Blu
- E-Cigarettes: Altria
- E-Cigarettes: Philip Morris International
- E-Cigarettes: Japan Tobacco International
- JUUL Labs
- Fontem Ventures
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