So how are tobacco firms going to advertise e-cigarettes?

A sexy comeback?

It looks like doubles all round: ad agency execs are no doubt rubbing their hands in glee. Christmas may come early this year for some ad execs. Tobacco advertising is making an unexpected comeback. Not a misprint – ciggy firms are already plugging their wares on US television. It really is like going back in time.

This is all to do with e-cigarettes. And this may just be the start. These little electronic gadgets contain a battery and a replaceable cartridge that turn nicotine and other chemicals into vapour inhaled by the user. 

Lorillard, the third-largest US tobacco company and owner of the Newport brand, snapped up Blu e-cigs last year for over $100m. Since October, it has been running TV ads starring actor Steven Dorff: sales are booming. Cue Lorillard’s rivals getting in on the act. Altria – parent company of Philip Morris and owner of the Marlbro brand – is launching its first e-cig.

RJ Reynolds (Camel and Winston are among its killer brands) is to ramp up its e-cig activity via its Vuse product. Reynolds is readying a TV ad campaign to roll out promoting Vuse as early as August. Meantime, British American Tobacco (BAT) - Benson & Hedges, Dunhill and John Player count among its brands - will promote an e-cig branded Vype.

At each firm, there is one common and hugely predictable theme: multi-million pound or dollar marketing budgets. And this is where things may become interesting. Just how will ad creatives promote the latest incarnation of the supposedly safe cigarette?

Then there is the matter of brand ambassadors? In the past, actors such as Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope and Rock Hudson plugged Chesterfield cigarettes; Phil (Sgt Bilko) Silvers was the face of Camel.

In the UK, I recall class ads from early schooldays for Manikin cigars featuring Bond Girl actress and model Caroline Munro. Sheer enjoyment from Manikin, I think ran the tagline. Sheer lechery more like.

Other memorable tobacco ads included Ronnie Corbett and Gregor Fisher: they were at least given some decent scripts (to the accompaniment of Bach’s Air on the G String) to plug Hamlet cigars.

The wonderful George Cole, in his pre-Minder days, was also on a "nice little earner" plugging Benson & Hedges.

Among contemporary actors and celebs who continue to smoke real cigs, who might agencies turn to? Rhianna? Britney? Eva Mendes? Or how about Simon Cowell, regularly snapped with cig in hand?

Agents for other celeb smokers such as Kerry Katona or Jeremy Clarkson may not be in heavy demand but who knows. Courtney Love has been the front-woman in ads for the Njoy brand of e-cigs.

Other possibles might include Kate Moss or better still: Cheryl Cole. I have a vague notion that she has snapped with cig in hand not so long ago. On a more serious point: can tobacco firms – given the mendacious nature of much of its past advertising – be trusted to advertise e-cigs responsibly?

For that matter, concerns remain about certain aspects of these firms recent marketing activity in emerging markets such as China and Indonesia. All of this marketing and M&A activity is gathering steam ahead of any definitive evidence about e-cigarette safety. Research to date – such as there has been - suggests that the vapour emitted by e-cigs is not harmful. It consists largely of water and there seem to be no issues about passive e-cig smoking.

The UK government is still to determine if e-cigs are to be licensed and regulated as an aid to quit smoking. Medical experts have been stepping up their lobbying of government to classify e-cigs as a form of nicotine-replacement therapy. That would mean that the products would be subject to strict checks.

Not so long ago the tobacco industry lobbied and argued and spun ad nauseam that increased regulation and ad restrictions would spell the death knell for the entire industry. They got that wrong; totally, utterly wrong in fact. Tobacco firms have very low amounts of debt and in recent years have offered their shareholders inflation protection and strong dividends. Given their track record of business forecasts, it might be prudent to take with a pinch of salt all that the tobacco sector says about the business prospects for e-cigs.

We may at least see some decent ads though.

Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.