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Why Treat E-Cigarette Ads Any Differently Than Cigarette Ads?

November 25th, 2019   ||    by David Bloom

Major media companies, like WarnerMedia and Viacom, have decided to stop airing e-cigarette TV commercials, The New York Times reported, begging the question, should e-cigarette ads be banned entirely from television?

With $57 million in e-cigarette TV advertising in 2019, calls for bans on e-cigarette ads and other marketing have increased as controversy builds around Juul Labs, which dominates the market (more than $30 million in TV ad spend).

Antismoking activists and regulators say e-cigarettes—with their sharp hit of nicotine softened by a wide array of flavors—are creating a particularly vulnerable new generation of young smokers.

It’s the latest round in a long-running game of whack-a-mole between regulators and tobacco companies. The first big whack happened in 1971 when the US government banned TV and radio ads for traditional cigarettes.

Lassoing the Marlboro Man

While that law put the Marlboro Man out to pasture, it also spurred Big Tobacco to devise an array of new marketing channels, according to the Truth Initiative, including sponsorship of live events and sports.

The industry then came up with a “healthier” alternative to traditional cigarettes. The e-cigarette—a handheld device with an electronic heating element to vaporize nicotine suspended in liquid—was touted as an effective and discreet alternative to traditional cigarettes, helping veteran smokers stop using tobacco.

A study cited in Reuters suggested that “a large and growing proportion of U.S. teens are seeing e-cigarette ads in stores, online, on television and in newspapers and magazines.” Seventy-eight percent of teens reported exposure to at least one source of e-cigarette advertising, an increase of nine percent between 2014 and 2016.

A “Healthier” Alternative?

Juul said it wants to provide smokers with “a safer substitute,” per The Atlantic. By the end of 2018, Juul controlled 75 percent of the e-cigarette market, leading tobacco giant Altria to buy 35 percent of the company for $12.8 billion, Reuters reported.

That remarkable rise now has led to an even more remarkable backlash.

Tobacco Free CA, a state of California antismoking initiative, said “the tobacco industry has a kids menu,” led by the flavored variants that entice new smokers, especially teens, to give it a try. The flavors also cover up the harsh smoke and make it more difficult to stop, the state said.

Growing Controversy

The Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration and state and federal attorneys general are investigating whether Juul targeted teens. The FDA is also investigating a possible link between seizures and e-cigarettes, according to CNBC.

“Compared to adults, young people are uniquely vulnerable to marketing and advertising messages,” Kristy Marynak, a CDC researcher, told Reuters.

New Alternatives on the Way

Even if Juul is hobbled and e-cigarette advertising is banned or sharply curtailed, don’t expect that game of whack-a-mole between regulators and tobacco-related companies to end anytime soon. The New York Times reported plenty of investment capital is still flowing into other companies working the general territory where Juul has generated so much money and controversy.

Juul took off with strong product design, dozens of flavors, powerhouse ad campaigns, and potent nicotine delivery. It’s a formula sure to be duplicated. The question is whether regulators will be quick to notice and limit or ban the next version of e-cigarette ads before they have another public health crisis.

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