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Editorial: Grain of salt with Big Tobacco's e-cig warning

In this file photo, an electronic cigarette is

In this file photo, an electronic cigarette is demonstrated in Chicago. Credit: AP / Nam Y. Huh, File

Big Tobacco might have been scared straight.

Companies such as Reynolds American Inc. and Altria Group Inc. have voluntarily put some of the strongest health warnings in the industry on their entries in the fledgling e-cigarette market.

That's a startling about-face for an industry that for decades used smoke screens to deny the horribly addictive nature of nicotine and the ill effects of tobacco despite having evidence to the contrary. The fight ended in 1998 when the four largest domestic tobacco companies agreed to pay more than $200 billion over 25 years to settle suits by 46 attorneys general over Medicaid costs to treat smoking-related diseases.

Altria Group, the maker of Marlboro, sells MarkTen e-cigarettes with labels that flatly say, "Nicotine is addictive and habit forming, and it is very toxic." Altria warns against use "by children, women who are pregnant or breast feeding or persons with or at risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, or taking medicine for depression or asthma." Reynolds America, maker of Camel cigarettes, includes a similar warning on its Vuse e-cigarette packaging.

The companies might simply want to be honest about potential health hazards, but it's hard not to be skeptical. The aggressive, voluntary labeling just might be a strategy to insulate the companies against costly future lawsuits, or to curry favor with regulators.

Whatever the motivation, the warnings are important for consumers of a product that delivers nicotine or other chemicals for inhalation before regulators can assess the health risks and impose labeling standards. Smaller companies selling e-cigarettes should follow Big Tobacco's lead. What e-cig users don't know could hurt them.