Senator Dick Durbin Wages War on E-Cigarettes
Senator Dick Durbin, the Assistant Majority Leader from Illinois, is on a mission. He’s not focused on improving healthcare or dealing with worrisome national debt. Instead, he’s got laser vision on eliminating electronic cigarettes because he believes they are posing a serious threat. This week, Senator Durbin published a new report, calling out e-cig companies for hazardous advertising practices. After conducting a survey of the top-selling ecig companies, he is convinced that marketing is targeted at children and teens and he wants that to change.
In 2013, electronic cigarette companies spent around $60 million on advertising and product promotion and some companies expanded their advertising budgets exponentially. Senator Durbin thinks this is a problem because he believes that advertising is directed at young people. It’s one of the overplayed arguments that we hear constantly from ecig critics, but this time, lawmakers are getting involved and calling for the Food and Drug Administration to take action.
Ecig revenue has rapidly grown, doubling every year since 2010. However, the fact that the FDA does not regulate ecigs means manufacturers can advertise through television ads. Most ecig companies expect regulations in the near future so they are taking full advantage of their current freedom in advertising. Five companies reported a 164% increase in ad spending last year. Another company increased marketing by 300% and the biggest e-cig advertiser had grown its marketing budget by 352%.
All of this advertising money went to push ads on television, radio, and print promotions. However, a large chunk was also spent on social media campaigns, celebrity endorsements, and product demonstrations and sampling events. Senator Durbin believes that these marketing practices specifically appeal to youth. He claims that sampling events are youth-oriented and the ecig manufacturers gave free samples at nearly 350 events.
Senator Durbin is also concerned that television ads are appealing to young people. Blu Ecigs aired thousands of commercials on 48 networks and NJOY even advertised during the Super Bowl, “an event that reaches a substantial audience of youth under age 18”, according to Durbin’s report.
The report also focuses on e-cig flavors, showing that six ecig companies market flavors that would specifically appeal to children. The flavors referenced are Cherry Crush, Chocolate Treat, Peachy Keen, and Grape Mint.
Social media marketing is also worrisome, with seven ecig companies using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to promote products. Three companies have no age restriction options for social media accounts so in theory, teens can see and follow the marketing that occurs through these online avenues.
In order to rectify the potential danger caused by ecig advertising, Senator Durbin had several specific suggestions. First, the FDA should immediately begin to regulate e-cigarettes. Under those regulations, the FDA should prohibit e-cig sales to minors and require age-verification measures and purchase limits for vending machines. He also suggests that the FDA should ban ecig marketing that he deems “attractive” to children, such as using flavors that kids would like or giving out free samples.
He also thinks product promotion on social media should stop. He calls on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to enforce these new rules. He also wants e-cig advertising banned from both television and radio. Finally, Senator Durbin wants to FDA to require uniform labels that present health risks on all electronic cigarettes.
Response from the E-Cig Community
The e-cig community was quick to respond to Senator Durbin’s suggestions. Advertising Age contacted multiple figureheads in the electronic cigarette industry to see what they thought of Senator Durbin’s recommendations. The Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association (SFATA) was quick to defend current marketing practices. “We encourage responsible marketing directed to those over the age of 18,” said President Phil Daman. “SFATA does not support, and our industry does not use, youth-oriented product marketing.”
A spokesman from Reynolds America said that as the nation’s second-largest tobacco company, they fully prohibit youth access to electronic cigarettes. A spokesman for Altria agreed.
Altria is the largest tobacco company in the United States and they also have a presence in the vaping market with their Nu Mark e-cigarettes. Altria’s spokesman said the company supports “appropriate marketing regulations which allow e-vapor companies to communicate to adult vapors, respect adult consumer choice, while at the same time reducing exposure of e-vapor marketing activities to unintended audiences.”
Why Dick Durbin is Wrong
When you study Senator Durbin’s arguments from a scientific viewpoint, it’s easy to see that he is wrong. His report is titled “Gateway to Addiction”, but we know that e-cigs are not in fact a gateway. Dr. Ted Wagener from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center did an in depth survey of 1,300 college students that use electronic cigarettes. He discovered that only one individual that used e-cigs as their first form on nicotine went on to smoke cigarettes. Therefore, e-cigs are not acting as a gateway to tobacco use. In fact, quite the opposite is true. A study performed by the University of Catania found that e-cigs are effective for smoking cessation. After smokers used e-cigs for six months, nearly 25% managed to quit smoking completely and over half of the smokers had cut cigarette consumption in half.
Senator Durbin also picks on flavored e-cigarettes, claiming that they appeal to children. In reality, flavored e-liquids are essential to help smokers quit. Dr. Konstantino Farsalinos conducted a study to see if flavored e-liquids had any impact on the success rate of using e-cigs for smoking cessation. He found that the ecig flavorings were actually very important, calling them “important contributors in reducing or eliminating smoking consumption”.
From a logical viewpoint, banning flavored e-liquids on the basis of appealing to children is just ludicrous. By following that point of view, we must also issue bans on flavored alcoholic beverages. After all, Smirnoff Vodka offers flavors like Fluffed Marshmallow, Iced Cake, Kissed Caramel, and Whipped Cream.
Senator Durbin also takes issue with e-cig promotions at big events, claiming that most of these events target youth. However, the actual event reports tell a different story. While e-cigs made dozens of promotional appearances, they were almost always at adult-themed locations. Some of the promotional events were held at New York Burlesque Festival, Butter Nightclub, Whiskey Warehouse, Thomas Street Tavern, NFL game day bars, Bike Beer and BBQ, and the Playboy Party. Obviously, these events are totally drawing a crowd of children, right? After all, kids are the primary attendees at the Playboy Party, if you take Senator Durbin’s word for it.
In reality, e-cig companies choose advertising avenues carefully and they are cautious to insure the audience is primarily of legal smoking age. Altria only advertises in magazines where less than 15% of readers are under age 18. R.J. Reynolds Vapor Company advertises on television programs where 85% of viewers are 18+. NJOY targets all advertising at adult smokers between 25 and 54 years of age.
EonSmoke uses radio advertising intended to target adults. LOGIC will only do radio ads if 70% of the audience is over age 21. Lorillard does radio advertising if 85% of the audience is 21+ and television ads target programs with adult viewers over age 18. Lorillard also uses product placement in movies, but they must have at least an “R” rating to insure that only adults are targeted. Green Smoke targets their print advertising at 35-65 year olds just to be safe. This certainly doesn’t sound like the e-cig companies are specifically trying to market to children, does it?
Durbin Spells Hypocrisy as C-A-S-H
While Senator Durbin acts like he is anti-tobacco, he is doing everything possible to rid the world of electronic cigarettes, despite the fact that they are highly effective for smokers that wish to quit. “The Democratic Party should be the tobacco-free party,” he insisted in 1998. Somehow, we don’t believe him.
Anytime there is a question about political motives, it’s a good idea to trace the money trail. If you look at Senator Durbin’s campaign contributions, the second highest contribution amount came from Leadership PACs, totaling $71,500. Leadership PACs are the perfect way for politicians to make money and friends, without revealing the true donors. These PACs are “political action committees” and they can be a cover for a number of contributors. In fact, the tobacco industry contributes millions of dollars to political candidates through these PACs each year. This gives them an arm of influence over federal policies.
This is sometimes called “soft money” contributions and reports suggest that the tobacco industry gave more than $9.4 million to federal candidates and political parties through this method during the 2001-2002 elections.
While we don’t know exactly who is contributing to Senator Durbin’s PACs, we can clearly see the reason why flavored alcohol doesn’t bother him. Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America has contributed $20 thousand to his Leadership PAC.
A History of Hypocrisy
Senator Durbin has a history of hypocrisy in his political agenda. The Washington Times recently called him out for his double-sided lifestyle. While leading the push for the Paycheck Fairness Act to insure equal pay for women, he paid the women on his staff far less than he paid his male employees. While Durbin preaches to the senate about the gender pay gap, the average female salary in his office is $11,505 lower than the average male salary. In fact, four of Durbin’s highest paid staffers are men.
With such a history of hypocrisy and a complete disregard for scientific research, it’s plain to see that Senator Dick Durbin has no idea what he is talking about when it comes to electronic cigarettes. At best, he is grossly misguided and at worst, he is turning a blind eye to fact to promote his personal agenda.
Do you think Senator Dick Durbin has gone too far with this recent report? Is there any hope for e-cigs to survive with this kind of political leadership in Washington?