Don’t let Big Tobacco hook a new generation on nicotine with alluring ads for e-cigarettes

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 16

The tobacco industry is sharply raising spending on advertisements and other marketing for electronic cigarettes to try to make smoking glamorous again and hook a new generation of Americans on nicotine.

We shouldn’t let them get away with it.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

If adults choose to “vape” — inhale nicotine-laced vapor from battery-powered e-cigarettes — then they should be free to do so.

But that doesn’t mean the public should allow Big Tobacco to use its billions to build a new mass market for a consumer product scientifically proved to be very addictive.

The Food and Drug Administration says it intends to extend its regulatory authority to include e-cigarettes and might recommend banning television and radio advertising. It should do so quickly, before a half­century of progress in combating smoking is undone.

I was only vaguely aware of the debate over vaping when I recently saw a TV ad for Blu brand e-cigarettes that made me gasp.

It showed a slim, jeans-wearing “tough guy” puffing while appearing shirtless before an urban skyline, attending a concert and strolling through Inca ruins in Peru.

“For us smokers, times have changed,” the actor, B-list celebrity Stephen Dorff, says. “But a few things remain the same. Our desire to explore. To adventure. To roam without boundaries. With Blu, we can still be ourselves. After all, this country was founded on free will. Embrace it. Chase it.”

How’s that for combining manliness, style and individualism? I was dumbfounded to see again the psychological pitch of cigarette ads that I grew up watching before a 1970 law forced them off the airwaves.

The similarity is no coincidence. Lorillard Tobacco, which makes Blu, also manufactures Newport and Kent.

Another Blu ad wields equally familiar sex appeal. Actress and former Playboy centerfold Jenny McCarthy, wearing a low-cut dress, vapes Blus while flirting with a man in a bar.

Public health authorities are especially worried about such ads’ effect on teens. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that from 2011 to 2012, the percentage of high school students who had tried e-cigarettes more than doubled to 10 percent.

“It is frankly appalling,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden. “Nicotine is highly addictive. If kids have more access to nicotine, they are quite likely to have a lifetime addiction to tobacco products, including cigarettes.”

Six of the largest e-cigarette manufacturers spent $59 million on advertising and other promotion in 2013, with five of them increasing their ad spending by 164 percent during the year, according to a congressional report released Monday.

“The second coming of tobacco marketing is pouring millions into adland,” Advertising Age reported.

E-cigarette defenders argue that vaping is a less harmful alternative to traditional cigarettes, or “combustibles.” With the electronic version, users don’t inhale tar and smoke.

But too little research has been conducted to say for sure that vaping is entirely safe.

Promoting e-cigarettes also risks encouraging smoking, in general. Some current smokers will be less inclined to quit if they can vape in places where combustibles are banned.

Furthermore, the CDC was unhappy to find that many former smokers are now using e-cigarettes.

“We are very concerned that under the guise of reducing harm, [e-cigarettes] will actually increase smoking,” Frieden said.

Still, the biggest concern about e-cigarettes is the young. Research suggests that nicotine damages adolescent brain development and that teens are more vulnerable than adults to getting addicted.

The FDA should impose a nationwide ban on selling e-cigarettes to people younger than 18. More than half the states, including Maryland and Virginia, have some form of age limit already. But other states and the District do not.

The FDA also should prevent advertising that will lure the young to vape. E-cigarette manufacturers insist they’re not targeting teens, but some of their marketing techniques suggest otherwise.

They promote e-cigarettes in sweet flavors such as “cherry crush” and “vivid vanilla.” Their ads use cartoon characters such as “Mr. Cool” and “eJuice monkey.”

“E-cigarette makers are using a broad range of marketing techniques previously employed by traditional cigarette companies to entice young people to use their products,” said the new congressional report, called “Gateway to Addiction?”

The report, prepared by the staffs of 11 Democratic senators and representatives, urged the FDA to regulate e-cigarettes.

Vape if you want. That’s your business.

But don’t give tobacco companies free rein to profit by manipulating the public’s mind and jeopardizing its health.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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