While tobacco products have long been banned from the nation’s airwaves, the booming electronic cigarette market is proving happy to fill the void.
The lure of a glowing television screen now provides the e-cigarette industry its best method of reaching America’s youth and young adults, according to a new report released Monday charting the exponential growth in its cable advertising over the past two years.
While the products are illegal for minors in nearly 40 states, the study in the journal Pediatrics found that youth exposure to e-cigarettes has increased 256 percent from 2011 to 2013. Young adult exposure more than tripled — up 321 percent — in that same time frame. The researchers, from RTI International and the Florida Department of Health, studied ad exposure for an estimated 24 million young Americans from the ages of 12 to 24.
Public health researchers say this level of advertising is likely to continue so long as no hard evidence emerges on the risks of e-cigarettes. Industry officials say there is no proof the nicotine-flavored vapor produced by the e-cigarette systems is unhealthy, while many children’s health advocates warn the e-cigarettes can be a “gateway” to smoking real cigarettes.
“We don’t know the potential harm [of these products],” said Dr. Jennifer C. Duke, a senior research public health analyst at RTI and co-author of the study. “Certainly nicotine use isn’t something most Americans want for their children. The FDA should strongly consider regulating these messages on television.”
Congress banned traditional cigarette TV ads in 1971. The FDA currently regulates e-cigarettes only when they are marketed for therapeutic purposes.
Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids President Matthew L. Myers noted Monday that Congress banned these types of ads “because of the unique impact TV advertising can have on young people.”
“[If e-cigarettes] continue to be irresponsibly marketed, they could make smoking look glamorous again and undermine decades of work to reduce youth smoking,” he said in a statement.
E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that turn chemicals, including nicotine, into an aerosol to be inhaled by the user.
Researchers examined advertising data and viewership ratings for e-cigarette commercials by quarter, year, and sponsor, and they found that more than 75 percent of e-cigarette ads targeting youth aired on cable networks, those of which included AMC, Comedy Central and VH1.
Prior to the study’s publication, the FDA released its set of proposed rules that would allow e-cigarettes to be regulated as tobacco products. The proposal calls for age and ID restrictions to prevent sales to minors, as well as requirements that all products include health warnings. The 75-day public comment period ends July 9, after which the FDA will put its proposal in final form.
Some states have already passed laws prohibiting the sales of e-cigarettes to minors. At least 37 states have prohibited the sale of e-cigarettes and so-called “vaping” products to minors.
“Given what we know about nicotine related to the adolescent brain, it makes a lot of sense to restrict minors’ use,” Dr. Duke said.
The research said the leading brand known as “blu” was the primary e-cigarette brand driving the increase in advertising. The company told researchers its strategy is to “minimize any potential exposure to minors” by only running ads “with media targeting an adult audience of 85 percent or greater.”
Its website even asks potential readers if they are 18 or older before entering the site.