It’s a blast from the not-so-distant past. Nicotine products are marketed to teens as cool and mysterious, their mere usage a sign of rebellion and individuality. In the new millennium, the product being pushed is the e-cigarette, and it is positioned as both the safe and “cool” alternative to lighting up.
In other words, the Marlboro Man rides again. This time, he’s headed for American teenagers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently conducted the annual National Youth Tobacco Survey. Their findings revealed that, disappointingly, e-cigarettes are being heavily marketed to American teens.
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The survey study concluded that seven out of 10 middle and high school students are reached by e-cigarette companies through advertising. The e-companies are hearkening back to strategies of the ’70s and ’80s, using many of the same themes in order to get youngsters buying, and vaping, these battery-powered tools that emulate the sensation of cigarette smoking.
E-cigarette ads use many of the same themes — independence, rebellion, sex, glamour — used to sell cigarettes and other conventional tobacco products.
“It is very obvious the e-cigarette companies ripped a page out of the playbook of Big Tobacco when it comes to marketing to kids,” Erika Sward, vice president of Advocacy for the American Lung Association, told LifeZette. “These e-cigarettes represent challenges for kids facing addiction, and many kids move on to smoke cigarettes.”
While e-cigarette users don’t inhale tobacco smoke, users do inhale an aerosol, or vapor, that contains nicotine as well as other substances that have uncertain effects on our health. “The Surgeon General has made it clear that any level of nicotine exposure can hinder adolescent brain development,” said Sward.
E-cigarette use tripled among middle and high school students from 2013-2014, according to data published by the CDC and the FDA in their April 16 2015 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. This marked the first time since data collection began in 2011 that e-cigarette use surpassed that of every other tobacco product — including cigarettes.
More U.S. teenagers are using e-cigarettes than traditional cigarettes: 13.4 percent reported e-cigarette use in 2014; only 9.2 percent reported using traditional cigarettes, according to the CDC.
Breaking into the Teen Market
How do you get to the teen market? First, develop hip and trendy packaging. Add on a layer of celebrity endorsement, and add sweet flavors to the vapor, like peppermint. Finally, put it all on TV in a slick, appealing commercial.
B-list actors and celebrities like Stephen Dorff and Jenny McCarthy have advertised e-cigarettes in both TV and print advertising.
Unlike cigarettes, there are no rules against advertising e-cigarettes on television. And there are frustratingly few rules governing the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.
“There is absolutely no federal oversight of the sales, marketing, or manufacture of e-cigarettes,” cautioned Sward. “What we are waiting for is ‘deeming authority,’ which gives the FDA authority over all unregulated tobacco product.”
She said states do try to impose regulations, but they are more “token laws” than anything else.
“It is very difficult, without federal laws, to halt the sale of e-cigarettes to minors,” she told LifeZette. “Meanwhile millions of dollars are being spent to market these products that can act as a gateway to cigarettes. It’s pretty deplorable.”
One expert disagreed. “There’s a very strong abstinence-only part of what’s going on in the anti-smoking movement,” David Sweaner told Regulatorwatch.com. “I think it’s one of the most counter-productive things we’ve ever seen.” Sweaner, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa, has spent more than 30 years speaking out against cigarettes and tobacco in general.
Sweaner said e-cigarettes are different, however. He contends that because the product is being vaped and not smoked, it is much less dangerous. “If we got our caffeine by smoking tea leaves rather than brewing tea, that, too, would be killing us, not because of the caffeine but because we’d be sucking smoke into our lungs.”
In one Blu television ad, Jenny McCarthy smile at the camera and says, “I feel better about myself now that I’ve found Blue e-cigs.” (What teenage girl wouldn’t respond to that?)
“With Blu, you cold smoke at a basketball game if you want to,” actor Stephen Dorff says in another commercial for Blu, a trail of vapor flowing out of his mouth. Dorff is walking a shoreline with his coat-collar turned up, looking as if he’s taking a quick breather from an all-day Malibu beach party.
“We’re all adults here,” he continues, squinting into the lens. “It’s time we take our freedom back.”
In the way that the Marlboro Man catered to adult males but happily hooked many teens on cigarettes in the 1970s, Dorff’s commercial takes the same tack. What boy wouldn’t want to emulate him, with his scruffy shadow and his “It’s five o’clock somewhere” attitude? The e-cigarette in his fingers looks like his sidekick: his Tonto.
One Boston teen wasn’t taken in when shown a Blu e-cigarette commercial. “That guy looks lame,” he said. “Besides, don’t you have to plug them in, or something? Everyone’s always taking my phone charger. It would be impossible to sneak a cigarette charger into my room!”