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Big Tobacco’s Saviour

Demand for electronic cigarettes is growing at an exponential rate and Big Tobacco is now working hard to cash in on this fast growing $1bn market. With Bloomberg Industries predicting that e-cigarette sales will pass traditional cigarette sales by 2047, it is not hard to reason why Big Tobacco is so determined in its pursuit of market share. Accordingly, the last 12 months have produced something somewhat unfamiliar to most of us, namely, tobacco companies, once again, advertising on our television screens.

Already these adverts have sparked outrage from some who see the new campaigns as nothing more than an attempt to make e-cigarettes look “cool”, reminiscent of the cigarette ads in the 1960’s. Recently, criticism of an e-cigarette ad, broadcast during ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, generated more than 1,100 complaints. Similarly, an advert from e-cigarette maker VIP generated 1,156 complaints. As a result, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) has now begun an eight-week consultation which will look at introducing new rules to clear up “concern” and “confusion” in this area.

There can be little doubt that these adverts have been designed to associate e-cigarettes with themes and connotations not consistent with the particular product or brand in question. Recent campaigns have played on strong sexual innuendo and others have attempted to link the product with sporting themes, conjuring up images of health and vitality. Moreover, the prevalence of celebrity “vapers” such a Leonardo DiCaprio, Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole has sparked concern that e-cigarettes are being glamorised, resulting in a potentially damaging effect on young people. In fairness, some companies have sought to pursue a more direct message. NJoy, which has been reported to be pushing more positive anti-smoking messages such as, “friends don’t let friends smoke” has won some praise for doing so.

Given that e-cigarettes are still a relatively new market, the advertising of a particular brand has an obvious importance to manufacturers at this still formative stage in consumer tastes. However, the means by which this is achieved is important for the future development of this fast-growing market. At present, e-cigarettes lack credibility in the eyes of the wider public. Monitored volumes of negativity on this topic have grown, albeit at low levels, as has scepticism about the ostensibly benign effect these products have on society and the individual consumer. Adverts which seek to portray these products in a manner not coherent with their actual use run the risk of damaging the reputation of the sector and indeed, public perceptions of the product. As such, this is likely to lead towards greater calls for regulation and a clamping down on the rapid uptake of e-cigarettes and their ready availability.

At a time when credibility is key, Big Tobacco must look to find ways of advertising e-cigarettes that avoids the condemnation previously associated with tobacco advertising – a criticism that Big Tobacco has continued to suffer from in terms of public sentiment. Tobacco companies have welcomed the CAP consultation, however, it is Big Tobacco itself that needs to be seen to be pushing a responsible and accountable message about e-cigarettes. The sector should not be seen to be pushed into responsible messaging but should initiate it of its own accord and learn from its past mistakes.


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