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Reynolds American Inc., owner of the nation's No. 2 tobacco company, has said it plans to use TV ads to promote a revamped version of its Vuse brand electronic cigarette that it launched last month. Altria Group Inc., owner of the nation's biggest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, has declined to detail its marketing strategy for its first electronic cigarette under the MarkTen brand set to launch this month.
The makers of e-cigarettes defend their strategy.
"It's huge for us in that it allows us to continue a conversation we've been having with consumers for over four years," said Jason Healy, the founder and former president of Blu and now a brand spokesman. "There's the potential here that e-cigs could do a tremendous amount of good, more good than anything anyone has done on the anti-smoking side since anti-smoking was invented."
Healy said that as long as the marketing remains responsible, it should continue. But he said, "there's always going to be idiots that want to push that boundary."
There are a few limitations on marketing. Companies can't tout e-cigarettes as stop-smoking aids, unless they want to be regulated by the FDA under stricter rules for drug-delivery devices. But many are sold as "cigarette alternatives."
Many companies restrict sales to minors but only a couple of dozen states have laws banning it. And while some are limiting offerings to tobacco and menthol flavors, others are selling candy-like flavors like cherry and strawberry — barred for use in regular cigarettes because of the worry that the flavors are used to appeal to children.
One of the toughest issues the FDA may eventually have to deal with is whether lightly regulating electronic cigarettes might actually be better for public health overall, if smokers switch and e-cigarettes really are safer.
If that's true, it "sure looks like the good would far outweigh the bad," Zeller said. "But we need the evidence to know how this is going to play out."