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While the Cat is Away, The Mice Will Play: E-Cigarette Advertising Runs Free... For Now

advertising research / behavioral research / health research / blog / youth

Let’s play a quick game. Let’s imagine you see commercial with an attractive young celebrity on TV holding a cigarette, saying it’s a “perfect puff every time,” enticing you to purchase these so you can look as cool as him or her. Cue another scene, you’re at the race track and you see cigarette brand sponsorships plastered on the cars and drivers. What decade am I thinking of? The 1960s? ‘70s? Actually, no, I’m thinking of this decade, right now. But instead of the traditional cigarette or cigarette brand, it’s the e-cigarette (or electronic cigarette) – a new product that’s spreading like wildfire.

An e-cigarette is a battery-powered device that looks like a traditional cigarette, but does not contain tobacco or produce tar and carbon monoxide like traditional cigarettes do. They can come with varying levels of nicotine, several different flavors from watermelon to “Jamaican Me Crazy”, and emit vapors instead of smoke, which has led to the term ‘vaping’ rather than smoking. Depending on who you talk to, some people (the tobacco supporters) believe they are a healthier alternative to smoking and can help people quit their bad habit, while others (public health advocates) believe e-cigarettes are not healthy (nicotine is a toxin) and they increase the number of youth smokers which in turn could serve as a gateway to additional tobacco products in the future. Who is right? Well, we’re not 100% sure about that.

Hi MeganWhat we do know is that e-cigarette use has increased dramatically among youth. According to a recent article in The Washington Post, the percentage of middle and high school students in the U.S. who have used e-cigarettes has more than doubled from 2011 to 2012 (1). Additionally, more than 75% of middle and high school students who had used e-cigarettes within the past month had also smoked traditional cigarettes as well. Since this trend is so new, there is still no data to suggest that e-cigarettes are a safer alternative or help current smokers quit –sounds like the tobacco supporters’ argument isn’t a very good one. But that’s not stopping them from pushing the “healthier” alternative approach. The first e-cigarette bar just opened in NYC boasting a health-oriented theme where e-cigarette users, known as “vapers,” can hang out, try different e-cigarette flavors, and eat from a vegan menu (2). While they call themselves a “bar”, think of it more like a healthy juice bar, as they do not serve alcohol “because it doesn’t fit with their health-oriented theme.” Along this “health promotion” line, the tagline for blu e-cigarettes is “Take your Freedom Back.” The idea is that the smoker is now free to smoke wherever he or she pleases without bothering other people around with the awful smell of smoke or having to go outside of a building to smoke, and of course, it’s supposedly healthier than traditional cigarettes.

Tobacco companies’ efforts to “re-glamorize” smoking use some of the exact same techniques used for traditional cigarettes and they’re proving to be just as effective. According to an article in the New York Times, annual sales for e-cigarettes are expected to reach $1.7 billion by the end of 2013 (3). While they rake in the revenue from their new “chic” product, they’re also writing million dollar checks to advertise everywhere. And I mean everywhere. From TV, radio, magazine ads, social media sites, state fairs, and even Groupon deals. Yes, I saw a Groupon deal for a complete e-cigarette kit and I could even choose traditional tobacco flavor or cherry flavor (which happens to be my favorite flavor since childhood, but of course they’re not marketing to youth, right?). These e-cigarette companies can advertise anywhere their hearts desire because they are not currently regulated by the FDA like other tobacco products. Which begs the question – are they even a tobacco product? That’s the big mystery right now. Public health officials are currently screaming for FDA to implement regulations and tame this crazy (yet genius and effective) advertising.

Hi MeganWhile we all anxiously await FDA’s regulations (by watching more e-cigarette commercials like this ad for blu e-cigarettes featuring Jenny McCarthy), states across the U.S. have already started to implement their own rules. For example, Utah, North Dakota, Arkansas, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. have included e-cigarettes in their indoor smoking bans (4). Several other states have lumped e-cigarettes in the tobacco product category for tax purposes, while other states have classified them as “alternative nicotine products.” The FDA has said that they will issue regulations on e-cigarettes because without it they have no way of knowing how safe or unsafe they are, whether they are a safer or healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes, and if they can actually help smokers quit.

In the meantime, e-cigarette companies continue to use the same advertising tactics by sponsoring race car drivers, and using attractive, young celebrities to sell their product. Oh, but they say it’s healthier, safer, will help you quit, and you get your freedom back so it must be true, right? Last time I checked, you still have a cigarette in your hand. Does that “e” in “e-cigarette” really make it a healthy alternative? Is a diet soda really healthier than a regular soda because it has zero calories?

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