Uncertainty around e-cigarette marketing needs to be vapourised

British American Tobacco returned to British TV screens for the first time in 20 years this week, with ads for its e-cigarette brand Vype. The company says it is spending a multi-million pound figure on the campaign, hoping to reach more than 70 per cent of adult smokers.

Ruth Mortimer

Well, that sounds positive, doesn’t it? A real push for e-cigarettes to try and cut smoking numbers is a step forward for public health. Except it really isn’t that simple.

E-cigarettes are seen as better than smoking cigarettes, but they are not currently regulated as cessation products. (They have to meet this standard by 2016, when they will be regulated by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.)

So this means Big Tobacco is advertising something now that contains nicotine, which is not officially a cessation product and so cannot be marketed as such. It falls into a grey area; the marketing message cannot be about medical cessation, yet it is not banned for being too close to cigarette advertising.

E-cigarette firm SKYCIG told Marketing Week last month: “This is about lifestyle, like Starbucks is to coffee, we want to be that to the electronic cigarettes category. People still hide when they use an e-cigarette, but this will be about shining the light with pride.”

All the talk of wielding e-cigarettes with pride and making them a lifestyle choice is not even close to the language of medical cessation. And because e-cigarette brands cannot show anything resembling a cigarette in their marketing, the ads have to take a more conceptual route with running models and puffs of vapour. They also refer to people who use e-cigarettes by the catchy term ‘vapers’, which sounds like an in-crowd of users rather than smokers hoping to give up.

With lifestyle advertising like this, could marketing e-cigarettes actually end up promoting the practice of smoking, if not the traditional products? The Advertising Standards Authority is launching a full public consultation at the end of the month to look at this area, admitting “there is a regulatory gap here… advertising codes were not designed with these products in mind.”

Even when e-cigarettes are regulated in 2016 and can be treated in marketing as cessation products, as things stand, this means tobacco firms will be selling one set of goods deemed fatal and one set categorised as health products. This is an unprecedented situation and its ultimate resolution is, perhaps, still shrouded in (vapour) mist.