You don't need to be signed in to read BMJ Blogs, but you can register here to receive updates about other BMJ products and services via our site.

The marketing of e-cigarettes: a UK snapshot

6 Apr, 13 | by Marita Hefler, News Editor

Marisa de Andrade & Gerard Hastings

Institute for Social Marketing; University of Stirling

marisa.deandrade1@stir.ac.uk

Editor’s note: The United Kingdom’s health regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), is currently considering how to regulate ecigarettes. Given that marketing of these e-cigarettes is of particular concern, Marisa de Andrade and Gerard Hastings were commissioned by Cancer Research UK to conduct a rapid review of current practices and emerging trends. Here they provide highlights from the review.

————–

Multiple brands of e-cigarettes are being widely marketed, both online and in conventional media, as safer, ‘healthier’ and cheaper alternatives to smoking that can be used either to quit, or for dual use in places where smoking is not allowed – thereby enabling smokers to ‘take back their freedom’.

The products come in various flavours, colours and innovative packaging and have been endorsed by celebrity doctors and actors as well as fictional cartoon characters; presented as ‘must-have’ accessories; linked to charities; featured in various television programmes and films and been pictured in the hands of celebrities.  The ads frequently use images of young, attractive men and women and, in one case, sponsor a 19 year old British Touring Car professional racing driver.  Much imaginative use is made of online marketing – including social networking platforms; online consumer forums and internet-affiliate schemes which turn users into sellers.

The advertising regulator – the Advertising Standards Authority – is struggling to tackle this plethora of marketing communication. It has taken steps to remove claims on e-cigarette websites suggesting that the products are harmless (this remains unproven), and is monitoring television advertising – which cannot, for instance, make reference to the act of smoking.  However, the regulatory challenges are significant.

Early efforts to regulate tobacco advertising showed how difficult it is to control the content of imagery-rich appeals; thus the fact that smoking cannot be directly mentioned does not mean that it is not being indirectly invoked using pictures or associations.  Even with the best intentions, transgressions slip through the net; for example many e-cigarettes are being promoted as smoking cessation aids although they are not currently licensed for this in the UK.  Furthermore, online publicity presents particular difficulties – websites can be set up outside UK jurisdiction, for instance, and website age protection remains rudimentary.  The potential appeal of ecigarettes to the young is a particular concern, with at least one baseline study suggesting that younger, non-minority smokers with higher incomes have a high awareness of these products.

These developments have recently taken a more sinister turn because the tobacco industry has acquired large stakes in the e-cigarettes business.  As a corporation, a tobacco company’s overriding objective is to maximise profits. It is possible that this could be benefit public health by enabling them to diversify away from burned tobacco products, and so hasten the move to smokefree.  However, given the market size and dominance of burned tobacco, it seems more likely that these acquisitions will be used to bolster the status quo by normalising nicotine use, providing control of the recreational (and possibly pharmaceutical) gateways to it and turning a potential competitor into a product range (or even brand) extension.

The rapid review pinpoints two key areas of e-cigarettes which urgently need more research. Firstly, we have to know much more about public, and especially young people’s (including smokers and non-smokers), response to ecigarettes and the related marketing. To what extent are these developments modelling, reinforcing, or in any way promoting smoking? Secondly, it is vital that we learn much more about the tobacco industry’s intent. The current swathe of ecigarette marketing in the UK is chillingly reminiscent of the early days of tobacco advertising; this past experience suggests there is good reason to be deeply concerned.

By submitting your comment you agree to adhere to these terms and conditions
  • FergusReturns

    “it seems more likely that these acquisitions will be used to bolster the status quo by normalising nicotine use”
    I do have to ask, “So what?” Nicotine use isn’t the problem. SMOKING is the problem, and the two are not equivalent.

  • “As a corporation, a tobacco company’s overriding objective is to maximise profits.”

    I have a problem with that statement. I’ve heard that phrase used a lot in order to reflect blame away from the people who run the corporations, and I’m sick of it being used as an excuse.

    A “corporation” does not dictate a person’s actions.

    Who in their right mind allows a “corporation” to dictate how they live their lives? Would you go out and harm or kill another person in order to fulfill some overriding objective of some non-entity? Of course not.

    It’s wrong to excuse someone’s behavior simply because of something as ridiculous as a corporation telling them to “maximize profits”. “People” are responsible for their own actions.

    BTW, I agree with your assessment of e-cigarettes.

  • genebbb

    NICOTINE is the problem. Without it, people would no more smoke dried up tobacco leaves than they’d smoke dried up oak leaves from their front lawn.

    Take the nicotine out of cigarettes, and no one smokes them.

    Take tobacco out of cigarettes and you get the explosion of e-cigarettes we are seeing now. “Pure” nicotine.

  • It is deeply disappointing that so many UK regulators and health bodies are heading at high speed in the wrong direction on this issue, when there are proven harmful and large scale issues being neglected.

    The terminology and concepts being used also call into question the ethics and scientific abilities of those involved. Of course the use of these devices has not been proven “harmless”; exactly what substances around us have ever been proven thus? Air, tap-water? Nicotine patches?

    Using an “electronic cigarette” (to be precise an electronic device made to look rather like a cigarette, simulate some of the tactile sensations of smoking a cigarette, fulfil the habitual cues of smoking a cigarette, deliver nicotine orally, and perhaps visually annoy some non-smokers) is not “smoking”. It produces no smoke.

    Thus none of the hundreds of pollutants in tobacco smoke, many of which are very harmful to both the smoker and others in a wide environmental area, are created.

    This means its only direct harm, other than monetary, can be the measured delivery of nicotine orally, including to the lungs – the only way in which this differs from approved nicotine delivery systems such as gum, and patches. There might possible be a little nicotine breathed out into the environment. No one seems to have even started to assess the significance of these. I’m wondering if they are too annoyed by the things looking like cigarettes to do the obvious science.

    As a non-smoker, very averse to some ingredients of environmental tobacco smoke, and physically harmed by some of them (eye, nose and throat irritation particularly), concerned at the clear mental ill-effects on smokers, the health-system costs, and the huge gaps in non-smoking policies so far implemented, I see these electronic devices as a potentially ideal harm-reduction avenue. As a resident in multi-unit housing – where the Department of Health actually advises that it would be against the Human Right Act to limit the smoking in other flats that affects mine, and often causes misery – switching smokers to these devices seems so desirable that I’ve even contemplated making gifts of them.

    I would appeal for regulators and researchers to get their acts together on this, with harm reduction the priority, rather than exhibiting zeal.

  • You seem to be unaware of the problems caused by the many other pollutants, poisons, and carcinogens in cigarette smoke, and the pervasive nature of their propagation. Just because nicotine may be the main addictive substance for the prime consumers (although habit and social cues are highly significant), it does not thus become the sole problem.

  • Using an “electronic cigarette” (to be precise an electronic device made to look rather like a cigarette, simulate some of the tactile sensations of smoking a cigarette, fulfil the habitual cues of smoking a cigarette, deliver nicotine orally, and perhaps visually annoy some non-smokers) is not “smoking”. It produces no smoke.

    Thus none of the hundreds of pollutants in tobacco smoke, many of which are very harmful to both the smoker and others in a wide environmental area, are created.

    This means its only direct harm, other than monetary, can be the measured delivery of nicotine orally, including to the lungs – the only way in which this differs from approved nicotine delivery systems such as gum, and patches. There might possible be a little nicotine breathed out into the environment. No one seems to have even started to assess the significance of these. I’m wondering if they are too annoyed by the things looking like cigarettes to do the obvious science.

    As a non-smoker, very averse to some ingredients of environmental tobacco smoke, and physically harmed by some of them (eye, nose and throat irritation particularly), concerned at the clear mental ill-effects on smokers, the health-system costs, and the huge gaps in non-smoking policies so far implemented, I see these electronic devices as a potentially ideal harm-reduction avenue. As a resident in multi-unit housing – where the Department of Health actually advises that it would be against the Human Right Act to limit the smoking in other flats that affects mine, and often causes misery – switching smokers to these devices seems so desirable that I’ve even contemplated making gifts of them.

    I would appeal for regulators and researchers to get their acts together on this, with harm reduction the priority, rather than exhibiting zeal.

  • genebbb

    You seem to be unaware of reality, including the above message thread. I am WELL aware of tar’s harms.

    I was responding to a msg that claimed “nicotine use isn’t the problem. Smoking is.”

    I said that without nicotine, smoking stops being a problem because no one smokes. No one develops the long-term exposure to tars that comes with getting one’s nicotine fix once an hour, every hour of one’s waking life. That makes nicotine the sine qua non of smoking’s harmfulness.

    Smoking dried-up tobacco leaves without nicotine simply doesn’t happen.

    The only people who argue the beneficence of nicotine are e-cig manufacturers.

    But that’s a different argument thread.

  • You still ignore the issues with the smoke. Perhaps it is that you are only viewing it from the smoker’s perspective.

  • FergusReturns

    “No one develops the long-term exposure to tars that comes with getting one’s nicotine fix once an hour”
    But I’m NOT being exposed to tar when I get my nicotine fix. That’s the bit you don’t seem to understand.

  • genebbb

    Ah, I see where you’re coming from now. This is why you’ve been so coy in the other thread. I was saying: take the nicotine out, and you’ve no tobacco smoking. You were saying, or were just dying to say: no, take the tobacco out–and you’ve got e-cigs!

    And sure, it would _seem_ e-cigarettes would just have to be “healthier” for all concerned. But to say it produces no smoke is wrong; that’s just a regurgitation of industry propaganda. A patch produces no smoke. E-cigs produce smoke; not tobacco smoke, but are you telling me an e-cig smoker’s lungs absorb _all_ the nicotine? Are you telling me there are _no_ nanoparticles in what the industry touts as just “water vapor?”

    The reason Public Health tends to be wary about e-cigs–especially when confronted with manufacturers’ often outrageous claims–is that PH has been fooled before. In the 50s, it sure seemed “healthier” to smoke filters. Then we found it isn’t. In the 60-70s, it sure seemed “healthier” to smoke “lights.” Tobacco companies even touted light cigarettes as smart, healthy alternatives to (horrors!) actually quitting (just as e-cig companies do today). Then we found “lights,” under real-world conditions.are actually more damaging to the lungs than non-filtered cigs.

    You tout “harm reduction” as if it were an established fact. It’s not.

    Thus–and even outside the teen-smoking issue– it makes sense to let Public Health deal with the health effects and cessation potential of e-cigs–rather than leave it all up to the often-disreputable marketing of an industry whose overriding goal is profit.

    But then, this is the subject of the article.

  • BenPal

    “it seems more likely that these acquisitions will be used to bolster the status quo by normalising nicotine use”
    You mean like NRTs, intended to replace nicotine by nicotine?

  • genebbb

    Wrong again. The difference is:

    a) e-cigs are not self-contained–there is no secondhand patch substance.

    b) cessation products are closely regulated. e-cigs, being unregulated commercial products, are not.

    You still refuse to answer:

    Are you telling me an e-cig smoker’s lungs absorb _all_ the nicotine?

    Are you telling me there are _no_ nanoparticles in what the industry touts as just “water vapor?”

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
TC blog homepage

TC Blog

Analysis and debate of the latest tobacco control research findings and policy developments. Visit site



Creative Comms logo

Latest from Tobacco Control

Latest from Tobacco Control