Is Press Coverage Getting More Even-handed?
In the aftermath of last week's e-cigarette conference in Philadelphia, the city's Inquirer newspaper published a fairly even-handed article on advertisements for vaping products. "E-cigs get latitude on ads – which troubles some," reads the headline, and Inquirer staff writer Marie McCullough opens with a description of a daring ad for Flavor Vapes that pairs the message "Save humanity" with an image of a mother blowing vapor in her baby's face.
There is a nod to the oft-repeated complaint that e-cigarettes are using advertising techniques once used by cigarette companies, with its implicit, and dubious, a priori that an evil product makes the very enterprise of advertising into an evil. "Not only have e-cigarettes recapitulated virtually every advertising method used by conventional cigarettes," says Stanford University's Robert Jackler, "they've invented some new ones." Jackler studies tobacco advertising at the School of Medicine, and the professor marvels at in-your-face product names like "Lung Buddy".
Using an archive of cigarette adverts collected by Jackler and his wife Laurie, Stanford colleague Bonnie Halperin-Felsher joined with the pair in moderating a discussion of e-cigarette advertising at last week's conference in the city named for love ("philo"). Another ad cited uses the same technique employed in the Flavor Vapes advert, depicting vapers safely using e-cigs around small children in public venues. A father toasts his toddler son's sippy cup with a beer, while sporting an e-cig in his other hand, accompanied by the message, "Find out how James can smoke (sic) anywhere." The trio reportedly found that ad "misleading", although McCullough doesn't say why. Presumably because of "anywhere", since a number of municipalities and states have banned vaping in public venues.
The article nods toward the belief that e-cigarettes are "likely" less dangerous than cigarettes (just as a light drizzle is less "likely" to drown you than a tsunami). McCullough notes that e-cigarette advertising makes the implicit (albeit prohibited) claim that the product will help you quit smoking, with a standard dig at adverts that use a doctor's persona for this claim, "reminiscent of ads from the first half of the 20th century showing trustworthy physicians hawking cigarettes." Unnoticed is the slight detail that the cigarette ads in question were for poison, and the e-cigarette ads are for an antidote to that poison.
There is also the conventional nod to the fear – in the face of zero evidence – that the popularity of vaping among youth will have a gateway effect, turning young people into a generation of cigarette addicts. Flavors are of course mentioned, as are advertising themes appealing to youthful rebelliousness. What's missing is any shred of evidence that youth vapers turn into adult smokers.
Did we say "even-handed"? Well, there are two quotations from vaping advocates. This, from Ray Story of TVECA (the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarettes Association): "The ban on cigarette ads came because they were not honest about the long-term effects of tobacco use. E-cigarettes have no history of harm. The advertising is not the problem. We're losing four million people annually, directly related to tobacco smoking. That's why vaping would change humanity."
There is also this rejoinder to the complaint about youth-oriented flavors (from an e-cig company's webpage): " are not made to appeal to children or underage people at all.... You'd be surprised how many elderly people . . . love the different flavors...."
So is journalism on vaping getting more even-handed? Perhaps we can say it is inching toward fairness. Reporting on a panel critical of e-cigarette advertising, the journalist has searched out two quotations supporting other points of view. It's a step in the right direction, anyway.