Altria, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, reports their data show smokers 50 and older are returning to traditional cigarettes after having switched to e-cigarettes.

This trend is reportedly due to a mix of bad press, regulatory crackdowns on nicotine vaping, and — indirectly —  the coronavirus pandemic.

CEO Billy Gifford told investors the news on Altria’s first-quarter earnings conference call on Apr. 30. Older vaping consumers, Gifford said, are primarily purchasing discounted cigarettes after the sustained vilification of the vapor product category and the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) push towards the premarket tobacco application (PMTA) deadline.

“Over the last several months, we’ve observed an increase in the number of age 50 and older smokers in the cigarette category,” Gifford said in the call. “We believe these smokers had previously switched to e-vapor products, but recently returned to cigarettes due to negative publicity and regulatory and legislative developments in the e-vapor category.”

Marlboro’s share of the U.S. cigarette market fell by at least a half a percentage point to 42.8 percent, compared to 43.3 percent in the first quarter of 2019. However, the trend of vapers shifting towards cheap cigarettes is eating away at Altria’s retail share.

Nielsen data also suggests that Altria is losing retail share to cheaper brands, despite an increase in cigarette consumption partially tied to stockpiling brought on by pandemic fears.

Bonnie Herzog, a managing director at Goldman Sachs, noted in a market research note that Altria’s Marlboro brand is underperforming in total industry dollar sales. E-cigarette market share is also decelerating, particularly tied to Juul Lab’s continued shrinking market.

“We expect smaller brands such as Puff Bar to continue to gain significant share, especially in the disposable e-cig segment, which is not covered by the FDA’s restriction on non-tobacco [and] non-menthol flavor variants,” Herzog noted.

Factors driving Altria’s earnings results include public health crises in the U.S., which also caused global controversy around vaping-linked lung injuries and an uptick in underaged use.

The FDA shook up the U.S. vaping industry by ramping up its enforcement actions against e-cigarette manufacturers.

The agency’s actions partly came from pending litigation before a Maryland federal court ordered the agency to finally implement the PMTA regulatory pathway as mandated by the Obama-era Tobacco Control Act.

Commissioner Stephen Hahn said that the FDA now has a 120-day extension for the PMTA deadline as ordered by courts. Premarket review for many e-cigarettes, cigars and other new tobacco products are now required to be filed by Sept. 9.

Vaping is still considered a safer alternative to cigarettes by public health organizations across the world.

Public Health England was the first national health agency to endorse regulated e-cigarettes as 95 percent safer than cigarettes. The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also admit that vaping products are theoretically safer than cigarettes.

When you consider the scientific positions on vaping, Altria’s trends are telling. Konstantinos Farsalinos, a Greek cardiologist, believes the trend of vapers returning to cigarettes is troubling.

“This is really unfortunate and a sign of serious misinformation and misperceptions about the large risk difference between smoking and harm reduction nicotine products,” he said.

“Drastic measures are needed so that smokers will receive reasonable, unbiased, and evidence-based messages [to] make informed decisions,” Farsalinos added, referring to the potential benefits of risk-reduced products like those in the e-vapor product category.