A Blu eCigs advertisement depicts a rugged-looking man that some health advocates say is similar to the man once used in Marlboro cigarette ads.
E-cigarette company executives were forced to defend their marketing campaigns from critics, including U.S. senators, at a hearing on Wednesday that discussed the impact of e-cigarette advertising on children and teens.
Health advocates said they feel e-cigarette ads target kids in ways similar to old cigarette ads did, using everything from cartoons to sexual innuendo. Ads for combustible cigarettes have long been banned because they can cause a litany of health complications, but e-cigarette marketing is almost unregulated.
Concerns stem from statistics that show adolescent exposure to e-cigarette television ads shot up 250% from 2011 to 2013, and e-cigarette use doubled among middle-school and high-school students from 2011 to 2012. E-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, but allow users to inhale vaporized nicotine. Potential health consequences are still not fully understood.
“What we’re seeing from the e-cigarette industry are the exact same marketing practices, the exact same images that the tobacco companies used successfully for decades to attract these kids," Matthew Myers, president of Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids, told Mashable. Myers, who testified at the hearing, said many ads are sensual, and promote masculinity, rebelliousness and other themes that he believes are attractive to children.
Below, we've pulled together several composite images of e-cigarette ads (left) alongside old cigarette ads (right).
E-cigarette advocates got off to a rough start at Wednesday's hearing when Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, made multiple accusations against companies that market electronic smoking products.
“These products are relatively new, and their longterm health effects are unknown at this point," Rockefeller said. "Which to me means, why in heaven's name are you going ahead and marketing these things? Why would you do that? You want to make money. That’s your answer."
In addition to the ad imagery, some health advocates criticized e-liquid flavors, including cherry, cinnamon bun and chocolate "tootsee roll" for what they said are deliberate attempts to attract youth.
Jason Healy, president of Blu, a market leader in the e-cigarette industry, did not address concerns over ad imagery, but rather shifted the conservation to what he said are the benefits that e-cigarettes have for adults.
“Our marketing focus is to communicate to adult smokers that e-cigarettes are a viable alternative to cigarettes," Healy said. “E-cigs have a tremendous untapped potential to change the lives of adult smokers.”
"Using a variety of flavors is critical to ensuring adult smokers do not return to smoking," he added.
However, some committee members said Healy's claims were difficult for them to believe because Blu is owned by Lorillard, America's third-largest tobacco company, and is therefore part of an industry whose ad campaigns lured children to smoke for decades.
Even Njoy, a company with no "big tobacco" affiliation, at one point used an e-cigarette ad featuring Robert Pattinson, star of the Twilight movies, which were a sensation among teens.
As tobacco companies begin to shift their attention to e-cigarettes, health advocates are hurrying to prevent what they say is the second coming of a wave of advertising that will result in poor health for millions of people. So far, though, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has made no proposals to rein in e-cigarette marketing.