In a hearing Wednesday afternoon that harkened back to the famous congressional Big Tobacco hearings two decades ago, Senators on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee eviscerated electronic cigarette executives Jason Healy, CEO of blue eCigs (owned by tobacco company Lorillard), and Craig Weiss, CEO of NJOY, leaders of the two leading e-cig brands.
The hearing was on the marketing practices by the electronic cigarette industry, which the Senators said appeals directly to kids, a lift straight from the tobacco industry's playbook, when it began in the 1950s to try and hook young people early to addictive nicotine. Though nicotine is not the carcinogenic ingredient in tobacco cigarettes, it is the culprit behind why so many continue to smoke, and it's hardly a benign substance either. Nicotine is highly toxic on its own, and there has recently been an increase in calls to poison control centers after contact with electronic cigarette liquid containing nicotine. Nor is the substance good for the developing teen brain.
The Senators and those offering testimony at the hearing, which included electronic cigarette executives and representatives from public health organizations, were in agreement that electronic cigarettes should not be sold to kids under the age of 18. At issue was whether the marketing practices employed by electronic cigarette makers, which are currently unregulated by the federal government, were designed to appeal to kids.
At the hearing, the e-cigarette executives were skewered by the Senators who had the facts on their side. A recent CDC report showed that the use of electronic cigarettes by middle school and high school students doubled from 2011 to 2012. The same survey showed that more than 1.78 million middle and high school students nationwide have tried electronic cigarettes. A recent American Legacy Foundation report found that last year 14 million kids saw ads for electronic cigarettes on TV, 9.5 million saw them in print.
A study from RTI International and the Florida Department of Public Health published in the Journal of Pediatrics showed that exposure to electronic cigarette advertising jumped 256% from 2011 to 2013 among adolescents aged 12 to 17. Mr. Healy's company, blu eCigs was found responsible for almost 82% of the ads that reached that age group.
Slumped in their chairs, the beleaguered executives, Mr. Weiss and Mr. Healy, argued that their marketing was not directed at kids, but adults. Electronic cigarettes, both men argued, are designed to entice those who already smoke to use the product, claiming they are a valuable public health tool to help wean the 40 million adult smokers off of deadly cigarettes. "It is our corporate mission to [make] obsolete the combustion cigarette," Weiss testified.
"Every time I use an e-cigarette instead of a combustible cigarette, that's a good decision," said Mr. Healy, a smoker who "vapes" (inhales through the e-cigarette vaporizer).
Healy and Weiss aren't wrong that electronic cigarettes hold promise to improve the nation's well-being if they can get America's smokers off of combustible cigarettes--a view held by many in public health. Scientific research has not yet determined how or whether electronic cigarettes can really get people to quit smoking, but it is a technology we should embrace to see if it can. As Mitch Zeller, head of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Control has said: “We have to have an open mind on the potential for these emerging technologies to benefit public health.”
But Senators including Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), both former prosecutors, undermined those health promotion claims during cross-examination, calling into question the brands' use of celebrities, social media, free cigarettes, and TV and print advertisements in major television markets (NJOY advertised during the Super Bowl), and flavors that appeal to kids.
"The only difference between your testimony today and testimony of the tobacco executives is that you are not under oath," said Senator Blumenthal. "I find in your testimony a sense of denial that I cannot credibly accept because it is defied by the numbers. 18 million teens were exposed to blu's print TV ads in 6 months and NJOY’s ads reached 3 million teens [these statistics come from the American Legacy Foundation report]. There is a legal principle that people are responsible for the natural and logical effects of what you do, and you know that you are reaching children."
"I think we have seen this movie before," he continued. "It is called big nicotine comes to children near you and you are using the same kinds of tactics and promotions and ads that were used by big tobacco and proved so effective."
Holding up a picture of Robert Pattinson, the star of the popular Twilight films, vaping an NJOY, Blumenthal asked Weiss, "Do you deny he is designed to appeal to teens?"
"He's a 28 year old adult smoker," Weiss replied. "Are you saying if they are older than 18, they have no impact on people under 18?"
"Our target is to reach adult smokers," said Weiss.
Senator Klobuchar took over the same line of questioning. "Have you gone to the Twilight movies, Mr. Weiss? I've been to those movies with my daughter, who is 16, and I can tell you, in those theaters, the people in there are kids...[Pattinson] is an adult smoker that appears in movies that appeal to kids. That’s what matters to me."
Klobuchar continued, "I’ve got to tell you that most people over fifty are not going to know Robert Pattinson. Justin Bieber is over 18, someone put him out there, I don’t think anyone is going to think [he is being] marketed to adults. This is my exhibit D, that heavy duty marketing [efforts] go on to youth."
Another tense moment occurred between Senator Barbara Boxer from California, who grilled Weiss and Healy about flavored e-cigarettes.
Weiss and Healy both contended that having different flavors available appeals to adults, too. Some Senators referred to a website sponsored by blu's parent company, Lorillard, stating that flavors like "cherry" and "vanilla" make children vulnerable to electronic cigarettes. Healy responded that the average age of a consumer using blu's cherry flavor is in the high 40s. The average overall consumer of blu eCigs is 51, said Healy.
Responding to questions from Senator Boxer (D-California) about the flavors NJOY plans to introduce, Weiss made a slip, saying "for adults, we have single malt scotch."
"Adult flavors?" said Boxer. "As opposed to those for children." Weiss continued nervously, attempting to remember the new flavors off the top of his head: "In addition, there's vanilla bean, there's also peach tea, there's also, um..."
At the end of her time to question, Boxer said: "Mr. Healy and Mr. Weiss, you can con yourself. But we don’t know if this product gets people off cigarettes yet, so don’t think you are doing some great mission. Don’t say you care about kids," said Senator Boxer. "Don’t be a part of this, because you’ll regret it."
But the harshest words came from Senator Jay Rockefeller (D- West Virginia), who said to the executives: "I’m ashamed of you. I don’t know how you go to sleep at night. I don’t know what gets you to work in the morning except the color green of dollars. You are what is wrong with this country."