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E-Cigarette Makers Going After Youth, Report Finds

Image: Top US Tobacco Companies Enter E-Cigarette Market

A new report says e-cigarette makers are targeting teens with their products, despite their denials. Getty Images file

E-cigarette makers may say they welcome regulation and don’t want to sell to teenage nonsmokers, but their advertising dollars paint a very different picture, according to a report released Thursday.

E-cigarette makers spent $39 million on ads from June through November 2013, much of it on programming targeting youth, the anti-tobacco organization Legacy found.

“Overall, these research findings indicate that, despite their publicly stated intentions, some e-cigarette companies are reaching youth with their advertising,” Legacy says in its report.

“Moreover, the only national brand owned by a major tobacco company, blu, is reaching a significant portion of young Americans with its advertising. The effects of this are apparent, with nearly all young people aware of these products and use among young people rising rapidly.”

Health officials from several major U.S. cities say that's why federal regulators need to act. They can restrict sales and limit where people may smoke or "vape," but they cannot restrict national ads.

"There are some areas where our hands are tied and that particularly is in marketing," said New York City health commissioner Dr. Mary Travis Bassett.

"They need to do more to protect kids from the effects of TV," added Los Angeles County health commissioner Dr. Jonathan Fielding.

The fear is a whole new generation of people will become addicted to nicotine before federal regulations can be written, let alone take hold, the health commissioners told a news conference. New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles County are among the big city areas that have restricted sales and use of e-cigarettes.

Even some public health experts say e-cigarettes may be a useful alternative to burned tobacco cigarettes for smokers. But they also agree that it would be bad to encourage or even allow non-smoking children to become addicted to the nicotine in e-cigarettes.

Legacy was set up in 1999 as part of the Master Settlement Agreement when major tobacco companies agreed to pay more than $200 billion to states and territories. The states wanted some of the money to be used for an organization dedicated to studying and providing public education about the impact of tobacco.

Just last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it would seek to regulate e-cigarettes, because they contain nicotine, the addictive substance in tobacco. Most e-cigarette makers said they’d welcome some regulation.

Legacy did two studies looking at the marketing of e-cigarettes, and asking teens and young adults what they knew about them. It found e-cigarette TV ads reached 29.3 million teens and young adults from January through November 2013, including 58 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds.

Taken together, the two reports show e-cigarette makers using tactics that have long been banned for regular cigarettes, the report says.

E-cigarette makers dispute this. "The products are being advertised to adults," said Cynthia Cabrera, executive director of the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association. "If children are watching during that time, it's possible, but they are being marketed to adult consumers, to adult smokers."

Public health experts say 90 percent of smokers start by the age of 20. They worry that e-cigarettes sold in flavors such as bubble gum and Gummi bear are targeted mainly to younger teens.

“While cigarette advertising is prohibited on television, it is currently fair game to use television to promote electronic cigarettes. Using broadcast and online advertising has allowed the e-cigarette industry to promote its products in a way that has broad reach and is largely unregulated,” Legacy says.

"Every day that industry is growing very, very rapidly," LA's Fielding said. "And you can be sure that big tobacco is going to wind up in the driver’s seat with respect to marketing. Don’t let them undo decades of efforts to de-glamorize smoking."