A half century after those memos, fewer than 1 in 5 American adults smokes cigarettes, and reduced demand has dropped the number of tobacco farms from 179,000 in 1982 to 10,000 as of 2012. Meanwhile, most states have legalized medical marijuana, nine have legalized recreational use, and 3 in 5 Americans favor changing laws to make pot as readily available as tobacco.
That changed environment may help Big Tobacco in two ways. First, marijuana use might encourage more people to smoke cigarettes. The CDC says high-school cigarette smoking dropped from 28 percent in 1991 to 16 percent in 2013, but the UCSF study found students who smoke marijuana are more likely than nonusers to start smoking tobacco as well. A 2003 study at the University of Florida found 65 percent of students in 10 undergraduate classes had used both marijuana and tobacco within the same hour, and 31 percent said they had smoked tobacco to prolong the effects of marijuana.
Second, Big Tobacco with its established markets is well-positioned to sell marijuana legally. Evidence of intentions: Between 2009 and 2010, Altria Group Inc. took legal action to secure the domain names AltriaCannabis.com, AltriaMarijuana.com, and MarlboroWeed.com. In 2014, Altria purchased Florida-based Green Smoke, a company that sells e-cigarettes with menthol cartridges. (Pot users often prefer menthol, which has a cooling effect that counters the throat dryness caused by inhaling marijuana smoke.)
In 2015, former Altria subsidiary Philip Morris International of Switzerland filed a patent for growing genetically modified marijuana plants with increased oils, which pot experts tie to better flavors and enhanced highs. In January of this year, Altria invested nearly $20 million in Syqe Medical, an Israeli manufacturer of 3D-printed, metered-dose cannabis inhalers. The Times of Israel said the inhaler’s use for patients at Haifa’s Rambam Hospital made it “the first hospital in the world to prescribe cannabis as a standard medical treatment.”