Should Advertising of E-Cigarettes be Banned?

The ad in the print media depicting a man leaping in the air with outstretched arms against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, seems innocuous enough till one goes on to read the text of the ad. Speaking of self belief and the need for every dad to have self belief in order to qualify to be an “epic dad” able to withstand a three hour bouncy castle ride, the lines go on to promote E-Lites with their slogan “Believe you can”. The ad quietly goes on to promote E-Lites as the favourite e-cigarette in the UK. With the ban on advertising tobacco products being effective for over a decade, many fear a return to the old days of unbridled tobacco advertising.

A reader of the Observer from Leicester expressed shock at the appearance of the ad which he says takes us several steps backwards to the ads for Marlboro cigarettes which tried to associate positive sentiments and actions like self belief, good parenting and fitness, with a nicotine high. While it was bad enough for advertisers to bring out such ads, he felt let down that his paper carried the ad. He is apprehensive that this many more such ads will soon appear, with other e-cigarette companies joining the bandwagon and copywriters having a field day writing convincing but factually incorrect material for the ads.

An experienced advertising executive remarked that the Observer would carry ads of other manufacturers so long as they met the ASA guidelines as to legality, truthfulness and honesty. According to him, all ads are vetted and any material which may be offensive is rejected. There is also a system of continuous review to assess the impact of advertising on both, the business and the readers.

In UK, there are certain restrictions on the sale of e-cigarettes. Moves are being made to regulate them as medicines as more people are turning to electronic cigarettes to help them in their efforts to quit smoking. Laws as regards e-cigarettes vary greatly over the world with regulators trying to keep pace with the phenomenal growth in the popularity of this device. The rush to legislate is evident with instances of legislation pushed through in a hurry becoming more common, such as the inclusion of electronic cigarettes within the ambit of anti-smoking laws by Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York, just before he completed his term in office towards the end of the year 2013.

Advocates of e-cigarettes believe that such tough regulation is unwarranted as the device gives out a vapour and not smoke as is the case with tobacco cigarettes. The nicotine laced vapour provides the user a nicotine high devoid of tar and other toxic chemicals produced by burning tobacco. There are around 1.3 million e-cigarette users in the UK who, technically speaking, are allowed to vape anywhere.

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency is of the opinion that regulation of e-cigarettes is necessary in view of the evidence that shows that an increasing number of people are using them to help them quit smoking and considering that they are not as harmful as tobacco cigarettes are. The British Medical Association recommends curbs on the sale and promotion of e-cigarettes to ensure that the publicity is aimed solely at smokers trying to quit smoking without making the product attractive to non smokers, especially the youth and children.

The president of the electronic cigarette industry trade association agreed that there was still some ambiguity as regards what is permissible while advertising the product but claimed that the association was working with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to frame appropriate guidelines by mid 2020.

Presently, the ASA guidance requires advertisers to disclose the nicotine content, if any, in the e-cigarette. E-Lites complies with this requirement and in addition specifies that the product is aimed at people who are over 18 years and for existing smokers only. However it is difficult to fathom the extent of the effect this will have, in the absence of an age bar on the purchase of e-cigarettes.

Most industry insiders opine that the MHRA proposal is not feasible and draw attention to the fact that a similar proposal was shot down by the European Parliament last October. They recommend the fixing of the minimum age limit for purchasers and the preparation of a broad regulatory framework.

The debate promises to be a long, drawn out affair. Viscount Ridley, while speaking in the Lords pointed out that tobacco use in Europe dropped by over 8% over the last year which he attributed to people switching over to using electronic cigarettes. He states that companies are worried and find themselves in a situation similar what Kodak faced a few years back – the advent of a completely new technology.