E-cigarettes should be marketed as a tobacco deterrent, not the skinny jeans of the inhalation industry

Lorillard's "Blu" e-cigarettes are being sold as the latest vogue nicotine product, when really they should be presented as an attractive way of cutting down.

Jenny’s love life is in tatters. “You know, I love being single”, confesses the talk-show host, but her smoker-induced “ashtray breath” keeps all the men at bay. After all, it’s hard balancing the roles of busy smoker and eligible woman seeking love. But luckily for Jenny, she’s found “a smarter alternative”, blu e-cigs, cigarettes that make her “feel better” about herself.

It’s an advert strangely reminiscent of Lucky Strike’s “Smoke a LUCKY to feel your LEVEL best!” campaign – except 60 years have elapsed in the process. And why not? It may have been half a century since “Big Tobacco” graced our small screens, but the driving force behind blu is the same that rolls out top US cigarette brands such as Kent, True, Maverick and Old Gold.

Playboy model-cum-ABC host, Jenny McCarthy, has been snapped up as the face of blu, an attempt to actively market e-cigarettes as more than just nicotine replacement therapy. But a move towards glamorising vapourisers doesn’t just give Jenny a new job; it implicitly advertises the parent product of the device - tobacco cigarettes. Advertising needs to focus on e-cigarettes as a nicotine surrogate, not as an en vogue product in its own right. Without this, our saviours from tobacco will soon be the tobacco giants themselves, and after decades of lying dormant, Marlboro Man will don his cowboy hat under the new guise of vaping. Only this time, he’ll be waiting in the wings.

Re-watching the blu webisode triggers certain questions about why tobacco companies want to promote the alternative in the first place. Surely to stop smokers, well, smoking is the last thing a tobacco company wants to do? On the surface, Jenny’s outburst of “that’s why I love e-cigs!” refers to the cigarette deterrent as just that, a deterrent. But then it doesn’t. Jenny’s confession that the e-cig is satisfying without any of the nasty side effects of smoking – no more “stink eye” – glorifies blu as a stand-alone product.

This is where Big Tobacco companies tend to differ with their non-flammable counterparts. In January, a British company without tobacco ties – E-Lites – debuted their first TV commercial, affectionately dubbed “Gangnam Style Baby”. There is an important distinction to be made here.

E-lites is targeting an older clientele of seasoned smokers; middle-aged star Mark Benton is not selling an e-cig lifestyle, but a more convenient device for smoking. The same cannot be said of blu, framed as the perfect companion to a glass of white wine and that “special someone”.

Any Big Tobacco company knows the need to hook smokers early on, the firms recruiting more than 2/3 of smokers under 18. Apparently it’s a target not confined to burnables. Lorillard – blu’s tobacco company – is recruiting young people into the vapesphere by using both Jenny, the flirty, youthful face of the brand and by selling a compendium of flavours. E-Lites restricts its consumer base to three flavours – extra strength, light strength and menthol – the choice of e-juice reflecting that of conventional cigarettes. E-cigs like blu, however, boast 14 flavours including the fruity stylings of coconut, cherry and peach. Even if Lorillard insists its target audience is over 18, the sweet flavours certainly make blu a far more attractive option to youngsters than E-Lites.

In a September study conducted by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, figures show the number of US middle and high school students using e-cigs has doubled between 2011 and 2012 to 1.7 million. The trend offers no sign of slowing down. Although these vapourisers don’t contain tobacco, what they do achieve is to foster an item linked to the tobacco smoking culture. The electronic devices mimic the behaviour of burnable cigarettes, tutoring young people how to successfully inhale without choking – one of the major turnoffs for the virgin smoker. Like Lucky Strike’s 1949 advert, replica smoking is made to look sexy. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to apply this appeal to the original product.

Campaigns for the latest nicotine fix don’t come cheap. Lorillard spent $135 million for the blu brand back in April 2012, the firm owning the top share of the US e-cig market with 37.2 per cent. In the UK, £60 million has already been spent on smoking deterrent products such as e-cigarettes, nicotine patches and nicotine gum since 2009. Within the next year, the arrival of firms with deeper pockets like British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International and Imperial Tobacco into the British e-cigarette market could well produce a new Jenny for our primetime TV.

Vaping isn’t the problem. I’m all for smokers finding respite from tobacco-tinged lungs. Advertising isn’t the problem, either. Rather it’s the kind of advertising that needs addressing. The Jennies of the world are the problem. The way in which e-cigarettes can be dressed up in flavours and doted on by the young and beautiful – that’s the problem. Advertising needs to focus on e-cigarettes as a tobacco deterrent, and not as the skinny jeans of the inhalation industry. Did I mention how much Jenny loves blu?

Big Tobacco’s motives for entering the e-cig market are questionable at best. The worst outcome for companies salivating at this new business prospect is for e-cigarettes to replace flammables as the new way to get the nicotine fix. But at best, they become training wheels for the next generation of tobacco smokers.

For blu, it’s win-win.

Gabrielle Ortiz smokes an electronic cigarette at Vape New York. Image: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.