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Vaping in the movies

Personal vaporizers are beginning to show up in the movies. At first it seemed accidental, just there as part of the reflection of real life that the movies are supposed to be. The 2010 film The Tourist featured Johnny Depp vaping, while Beneath the Darkness showed Dennis Quaid using an unbranded vaporizer. Vaping also shows up in the hit Netflix series House of Cards.

But the Canadian firm Smokestik has just upped the ante by getting its product placed in forthcoming film Cymbeline, a screen version of the Shakespeare classic in a modern setting. Smokestik reportedly paid six figures for the "product placement", which includes a character who vapes regularly, and to drive the message home, includes a scene in a convenience store in which an advertising poster for Smokestik hangs on the wall behind the actors.

Predictably, critics are on hand to accuse e-cigarette marketers of "borrowing a page from Big Tobacco's script." For decades, makers of combustible cigarettes paid big money to place them in the hands of major stars in blockbuster movies. Audrey Hepburn's elegant cigarette holder in Breakfast at Tiffany's is almost iconic as an image for the actress, and smokes were omnipresent props in for stars with machismo like Clint Eastwood and James Dean.

Although real smokes were banned from television ads in 1970, actors were still permitted to smoke them on screen, and Big Tobacco used "paid product placement" in lieu of ad spots for many years. That practice was stopped in 1998 as part of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, the class action lawsuit won by state governments for health cost reparations. The deal also included more comprehensive restrictions on cigarette advertising.

The charge that electronic cigarettes are imitating the old advertising campaigns of Big Tobacco contains a hidden premise. If the product, the cigarette, was bad, then the marketing techniques used to sell them must be inherently evil, even when used to market a product that does the opposite of a cigarette. Celebrity endorsements, placement in feature films, association of the product with cool sexy things like flashy cars and sports – all of these must be evil in themselves, because they once were used to market poison. The charge of "re-glamorizing smoking" is generally mentioned in the same paragraph that says e-cigs are "taking a page out of Big Tobacco's book." This accusation misses the point that what is glamorized is not smoking but its antidote.

"I don't see a problem with glamorizing something that saves lives," said Smokestick CEO Bill Marangos. The Wall Street Journal reports that independent vapor companies like Smokestik, rather than Big Tobacco, are taking the lead on introducing paid product placement. The Canadian company now has an advertising representative in Hollywood, Justin Neill, who typically hands out complimentary Smokestiks to staffers of the stars.

Advertising executive Ryan Kavanaugh of Relativity Media has joined the board of Vapor Corp., with plans for a "natural, integrated, viral campaign," which will include paid placement. Vapor Corp's CEO Jeffrey Holman notes that Kavanaugh engineered some showy public use of Smokestik products at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Paid product placement is turning into another battleground for the vaping supplies industry. But it is a battle that the industry, and the vaping community, seem to be winning.