Why smoke an e-cigarette? Here’s how the actress Katherine Heigl once explained it in an interview with David Letterman: “You blow out water vapor so you’re not harming anyone around you, and you’re not harming yourself.” That may be fine for a celebrity to say on a late-night show, but not so for e-cigarette companies themselves. It remains illegal for them to make any health claims about their products.
That’s why a new, $30 million U.S. ad campaign by NJoy, the second-largest e-cig brand, is raising eyebrows among industry observers. In a full-on bromantic TV spot, two buddies go through life together—a school prank, moving into an apartment, getting in a bar fight, giving a speech at a wedding—before a voiceover intones: “Friends don’t let friends smoke. Give them the only electronic cigarette worth switching to: the NJoy King.” The campaign spans TV, radio, digital, and print, with another $50 million in spending overseas.
The NJoy spot doesn’t explicitly claim the e-cigarette is healthier or that the product will help you quit smoking, but as a recent Ad Age story noted, it seems to come awfully close to that line.
Yet NJoy Chief Executive Officer Craig Weiss, a former patent lawyer who neither smokes nor vapes, rejects the notion that his ad campaign verges on a health-related message. “There’s no comparison between what we’re saying and a health claim,” he said in an interview. “A health claim is an explicit statement that your health will be improved if you use my product. There’s no discussion of health in our campaign.”
But why else would you want your friends to vape rather than smoke? Because, Weiss says, it’s odor-free and it’s cheaper. In other words, friends don’t let friends smell bad and overspend.
While e-cig advocates suggest the devices will save smokers’ lives, the Food and Drug Administration takes the more circumspect view that more research is required into the risks and benefits. In 2010 the agency sent warning letters to five e-cig distributors to halt all smoking-cessation claims without FDA approval.
There’s almost no need to make an explicit health claim at all for e-cigs to seem a safer choice—it’s already common knowledge that cigarettes kill. So e-cig manufacturers can aim to create a scenario where smokers don’t quit smoking, they just switch to something that’s at least not as stigmatized as tobacco. “It’s very clear that we can market our product as an alternative to cigarettes,” says Weiss.
This is the easiest way to promote e-cigs, which are still largely unregulated. Avoid marketing them as health products and you can avoid the rules that apply to drugs and medical devices. That’s why NJoy isn’t marketed for smoking cessation, like Nicorette or Nicoderm; after all, the goal isn’t for consumers to stop smoking, just to stop smoking cigarettes. Such is the way of the industry now—there are currently no e-cigarettes that are approved by the FDA for therapeutic purposes.
Weiss says being able to market NJoy as a health product isn’t even the most important factor in growing sales: “Our No. 1 goal is to make the most satisfying product,” he contends. “That will lead to the greatest possible success.” And the most satisfying product is one where “the smoker can’t tell the difference, or, to take it a step further, it’s preferred.” NJoy isn’t about health, it’s about pleasure.
As of now, e-cigs aren’t considered tobacco products and thus dodge existing FDA rules for marketing tobacco. Yet this state of affairs is expected to change as the agency readies a rule that would expand its control of tobacco products to include e-cigs. Market leader Blu (LO)—the one that tells consumers, “It’s time we take our freedom back”—said in an e-mailed statement: “We understand that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration intends to develop regulations for electronic cigarettes in 2014. Blu eCigs stands ready to work with the FDA to promote responsible marketing within the industry.”
“I’m in favor of reasonable regulation,” says Weiss. And that posture makes a lot of sense, because it seems regulation of some sort is on its way.