Are e-cigarette companies intentionally trying to hook teens? CDC says so.

The electronic cigarette industry says its products are 'sold to adults by adults,' but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says advertisers are wooing teens with the same tactics that combustible cigarettes companies are barred from using.

Mike Segar/Reuters/File
Various e-cigarette products for sale are seen at the Henley Vaporium in New York City in this file photo taken Dec. 18, 2013.

Electronic cigarette companies are using a similar playbook to entice today's teens to try their products as tobacco companies used on their parents, and, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released Tuesday, the tactic is working. 

In turn, the CDC is employing similar arguments and strategies against e-cigarettes as did for combustible cigarettes, but the e-cigarette industry insists that its products are safer.

E-cigarette companies spent $115 million on advertising in 2014, compared to $6.4 million in 2011, the CDC's National Youth Tobacco Survey found. And they feature familiar images of sex, rebellion, and gritty independence that got yesterday's teens smoking regular cigarettes. 

"The e-cigarette advertising we're seeing is like the old-time Wild West," CDC Director Tom Frieden told Reuters. "No rules, no regulations, and heavy spending advertising the products."

Nearly seven in 10 American teenagers saw an e-cigarette ad in 2014, whether in a store, on TV, online, or in a magazine or movie; and more middle school students and high schoolers now use e-cigarettes than regular cigarettes, according to the study. Some researchers say e-cigarettes are less harmful than regular cigarettes, but others have found that the smokeless cigarettes can be harmful in different ways and urge additional research into the health implications of so-called vaping.

The debate over how many teens see the advertisements and then try the product because of them is a big one, and it is not likely to find its resolution in a study of a controversial product such as e-cigarettes. The prevailing logic, however, is if ads had no impact, the companies would not invest in them.

"The use of e-cigarettes in kids appears increasingly likely to result in an increased risk of using regular cigarettes," Mr. Frieden told Reuters. "They are not harmless."

For their part, e-cigarette companies resent the implications by the CDC. The Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association and Altria Group, which owns three tobacco companies, say they want restrictions on sales to minors, too.

"The CDC continues to mislead the public about the benefits of vapor products as far less harmful alternatives to smoking," Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association executive director, Cynthia Cabrera, said in a statement. "The CDC also fails to mention that teens are exposed to many other adult issues on the Internet, TV, and movies, such as violence, sex and alcohol."

She said e-cigarettes are a product "sold to adults by adults," but the CDC worries that without restrictions on advertising to teenagers, they will become another gateway drug for teenagers. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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