Huge numbers of health-focused researchers are joining the ranks of some of the world's biggest tobacco companies in a coordinated effort to develop and market the next generation of e-cigarettes.
According to a report by Toni Clarke for Reuters, tobacco giants including Philip Morris and Altria Group, the makers of Marlboro, have been on a recruitment spree to bring on board swathes of scientists with expertise in fighting cancer and other chronic conditions, so as to bolster research and development on new kinds of theoretically 'healthier' and risk-free e-cigarettes and vaping products.
Philip Morris in particular is heavily investing in the campaign, and is said to have hired some 400 scientists including toxicologists, chemists, biologists and biostatisticians. In addition to lab workers, the companies are also seeking to attract regulatory affairs specialists in a bid to help them navigate future red tape with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and get new products onto the market with as little friction as possible.
According to Philip Gorham, an analyst at Morningstar: "If tobacco companies can prove there is reduced risk, e-cigs are likely to remain less regulated and taxed than cigarettes. If they can't, they will likely be subject to the same restrictions."
However, opinions elsewhere in the scientific community are decidedly mixed when it comes to collaborating with the tobacco industry.
"The whole set-up is schizophrenic," said Lars Erik Rutqvist of Sweden's Karolinska Institute. "I wouldn't want to be part of that because they still make most of their money from cigarettes."
The new research is the latest development in the controversial e-cigarettes saga. While some advocates of vaping argue that e-cigarettes are an effective aid for traditional tobacco smokers seeking to quit the habit, numerous studies have suggested that e-cigarettes pose their own problems.
A controversial study published in 2014 suggested that e-cigarettes can possess even more carcinogens than traditional cigarettes are particularly concerning, while studies involving animal testing have demonstrated that e-cigarettes may be responsible for other kinds of potential health complications.
Clearly the jury is still out on the long-term societal risks posed by e-cigarettes, a relatively recent drug phenomenon and one that's evolving quickly. But we're inclined to think that any moves in the tobacco industry that genuinely look towards the health of consumers at large are a step in the right direction - provided they are indeed genuine - even if they're solely motivated by profit. Let's just hope they lead to innovations that will benefit both smokers and non-smokers worldwide.