By Stephanie Soucheray
Scarcely a week after the North Carolina General Assembly voted to implement a modest tax on e-cigarettes, researchers at RTI in the Triangle have published new data that shows electronic cigarette television advertising has increased by 265 percent in the last two years.
And teenagers are some of the biggest target audiences for these commercials.
“TV remains the primary media channel through which youth are reached,” said Jennifer Duke, lead author of the study, published in Pediatrics, and a senior research public-health analyst at RTI. “The science on e-cigs is still evolving, but now public information on e-cigarettes is dominated by media or e-cig companies.”
Electronic cigarettes, from which users inhale, or “vape,” vaporized tobacco “juice” instead of smoke, are touted as a safer alternative to traditional cigarettes. Because users exhale vapor instead of smoke, e-cigarettes are allowed in some bars and restaurants.
The liquid used in the cartridges comes in myriad flavors, from cherry to popcorn.
But unlike traditional tobacco products – which have been banned from television advertising since 1971 – e-cigarette advertising is thus far unregulated by the federal government.
“We used Nielsen ratings data to look at a two-year period of audience exposure to e-cigarette advertisements,” said Duke.
The researchers found a greater than 250 percent increase in advertisements, with 75 percent of the commercials being aired on cable channels with large youth audiences, including VH1, Comedy Central and CMT.
Duke said 80 percent of the commercials come from one company, blu eCigs, owned by Greensboro-based Lorillard Inc.
The study also showed that Raleigh/Durham and Greensboro are among the five most targeted metropolitan areas for television advertisers in the country.
“This is a public-health issue as we move forward,” said Duke. “E-cigarette advertisers have said their ads are increased to adults only, but there are considerable amounts of youth exposure of these unregulated messages.”
Ads with taglines such as “We’re all adults here” and “It’s time to take your freedom back” are particularly intriguing to youth audiences, she said, because they suggest that vaping is something “adult” and thus desirous to do.
While scientists have yet to determine how and if e-cigarettes compare to traditional cigarettes in terms of health risks, Duke said any exposure to nicotine, including the amount found in e-cigarettes, is damaging to developing brains.
Nicotine “changes pathways to favor the continued use of nicotine products and primes the addiction pathways,” she said.
For Pam Seamans, executive director of the North Carolina Alliance for Health, the fact that North Carolina, still the nation’s largest producer of tobacco products, is being targeted in e-cigarette advertising is cause for concern.
“We have an uphill battle in this state,” she said.
Seamans said last year’s state budget eliminated all youth tobacco-prevention programs, including one of the national models for a youth cessation program.
“That’s a real travesty,” she said. “Now more than ever, we have new emerging products and a lot of misinformation and confusion.”
The National Youth Tobacco Survey found last year that the use of e-cigarettes among middle- and high-schoolers doubled from 2011 to 2012, a fact that Seamans said proves youth are reacting to the marketing campaigns Duke’s study enumerates.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2012 nearly two million American teens had used e-cigarettes.
Seamans said that until the FDA determines that e-cigarettes are safer than cigarettes, “they should be regulated like tobacco products and treated similarly.”
Kurt Ribisl, a professor of health behavior at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the news of increased e-cigarette advertising to youth is “disappointing.”
“The younger someone is when they begin using tobacco products, the greater difficulty in quitting when you’re older,” said Ribisl, who is also the director of the UNC Center for Regulatory Research on Tobacco Communication. “You build up more nicotine receptors in your brain.
“It was shortsighted of the legislature to decimate the effective program for reducing youth smoking in North Carolina,” he said. “Our ability to respond to this new threat has been seriously hampered.”