Are e-cigarette marketers ensnaring the next generation of teen smokers?

A new study found that teens who used e-cigarettes were more likely to be heavy tobacco cigarette smokers and less likely to quit. Yet America still lets the e-cig industry market to teens. We need to stop them with some strong regulations, just like we did with regular cigarettes.

Sue Ogrocki/AP/File
A sampling of electronic cigarette supplies are seen in a shop in Oklahoma City April 19, 2013. The city of Bismarck, N.D., is the latest city in North Dakota to ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to people under the age of 18.

“I took back my freedom.” So says actress Jenny McCarthy, in a recent TV ad for an e-cigarette. Heating a nicotine-laced liquid so that the user inhales vapor, not smoke, e-cigarettes are being sold as a safe alternative to the regular kind.

That might – or might not – be true, for adults. But teenagers are another story. Last week, a report published in JAMA Pediatrics found that teens who used e-cigarettes were more likely to smoke tobacco cigarettes and more likely to progress from experimenting with cigarettes to becoming regular smokers – and heavier smokers at that. The study also found that these teens were more likely to be planning to quit tobacco cigarettes but less likely to have actually done so. The study concluded: "The use of e-cigarettes does not discourage, and may encourage, conventional cigarette use among U.S. adolescents."

Yet America still lets the e-cigarette industry advertise to teenagers, whose use of e-cigarettes doubled from 2011 to 2012. Companies sell the product in kid-friendly flavors such as chocolate, gummy bear, and pumpkin spice. Television ads feature celebrities like Ms. McCarthy, while one popular brand has adopted a cartoon character called “Mr. Cool.”

Of course, e-cigarette businesses say that none of these strategies are designed to lure young users. But that’s what the regular cigarette industry said, too, for nearly a century. Its history says something else.

Start with candy cigarettes, which became a craze in the mid-20th century. Wary of bad publicity, tobacco companies didn’t sponsor candy cigarettes directly. They instead let the candy industry copy cigarette brands and logos, turning a blind eye to copyright infringements.

“We have never raised any objection to the use of our labels feeling, for your more or less private information, that it is not too bad an advertisement,” one tobacco industry lawyer wrote to a candy manufacturer in 1946, as recorded in Stanford professor Robert N. Proctor’s book “Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition.”

Although it was illegal to sell tobacco to children, meanwhile, the industry secretly targeted them in its own ad campaigns. “School days are here,” an R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company official told sales managers in 1927. “And that means BIG TOBACCO BUSINESS for somebody. Let’s get it – and start after it RIGHT NOW.”

In the 1960s, as criticism of the industry mounted, tobacco companies pledged to stop marketing to people under 21. Behind the scenes, however, they continued to seek young customers. In 1973, one Reynolds researcher suggested searching high school history textbooks to find people and images that teens would recognize, which could then be adopted for brand names. At Lorrillard, manufacturer of the the popular Newport brand, an official admitted, “the base of our business is the high school student.”

The best way to enlist young smokers was to promise them the pleasure and independence of adulthood. By defining smoking as an “adult” activity, indeed, tobacco companies were able to keep targeting kids.

“In the young smoker’s mind a cigarette falls into the same category with wine, beer, shaving, wearing a bra (or purposely not wearing one,)” an advertising agency advised a tobacco client in 1975. “The cigarette is the entrance ticket to the hall of the adult society.”

The industry also used cartoons like the now-notorious “Joe Camel,” a hip dromedary who helped Camel raise its share of the under-18 cigarette market from less than 1 percent in 1987 to 33 percent in 1990. “Joe Camel is Also Pied Piper,” a Wall Street Journal headline blared in 1991.

Tobacco companies agreed to stop advertising with cartoons in 1998, as part of a huge lawsuit settlement. Nor can they flavor their cigarettes, following a 2009 Food And Drug Administration ruling that fruit, candy, and clover flavors have “special appeal for children.” They can’t use celebrities in their ads. And of course, cigarette advertising has been banned from TV for more than 40 years.

Yet e-cigarette companies get to engage in all of these practices, without almost no regulation at all. Last month, Senate Democrats introduced a bill to prevent e-cigarette businesses from targeting young customers. “When it comes to the marketing of e-cigarettes to children and teens, it’s ‘Joe Camel’ all over again,” warned one sponsor, Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa.

Actually, it might be worse than that. Joe Camel advertised a product that most people knew was harmful, even if they didn’t act in accordance with that knowledge. By contrast, e-cigarettes are being touted as a way to quit smoking.

For teens, it seems to be the other way around: A product advertising “freedom” makes them more likely to use a highly addictive one. How, then, can Americans let the e-cigarette companies freely market to our youth? We need to stop them with some strong regulations, just like we did with regular cigarettes, lest they enchain a new cohort of kids in a prison of smoke. It’s happened before.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. His most recent book is “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

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