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.
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder