DAVID GREENE, HOST:

NPR's business news begins with a smoking hot marketing debate.

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GREENE: Electronic cigarette makers are getting pretty bold with their advertising, using provocative new print ads and celebrity endorsements on television.

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JENNY MCCARTHY: I'm Jenny McCarthy, and I've finally find a smarter alternative to cigarettes - blu eCigs. Blu satisfies me. I get to have a Blu without the guilt.

GREENE: Public health advocates say these images are luring kids to hook them on nicotine without them even knowing it. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: It's one thing to use a former Playboy playmate as a spokesperson, but the latest ad for blu eCigs uses an itsy bitsy bikini.

STAN GLANTZ: I don't know quite the delicate way to describe it on the radio. It was just above - let me start over again.

ELLIOTT: Stan Glantz is a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He's not known for mincing words, but this ad in Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Edition gives him pause.

GLANTZ: The advertising just hit a new high, in terms of chutzpah; showing a young woman's - in a very small bikini's groin with a Blu cigarette ad emblazoned on the bikini bottom with the tag, slim-charged and ready to go.

ELLIOTT: You don't see her face; the frame is from pierced belly button to mid-thigh. Using sex to sell cigarettes is nothing new, says Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. He says e-cigarettes are pushing the envelope because they're unregulated.

GLANTZ: If the Obama administration were serious about protecting the public on public health, they would immediately move to clamp down on the way e-cigarettes are being advertised, and apply the same rules that apply to cigarette advertising to e-cigarettes.

ELLIOTT: Rules including bans on sports sponsorships, cartoon characters, flavors and TV advertising. Blu eCigs use a cartoon character named Mr. Cool in this television campaign. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The Mr. Cool campaign did not run on television but on the blu eCigs' website and YouTube.]

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Blu comes in seven different flavors...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Classic tobacco...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Magnificent menthol...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Cherry crush...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Java jolt...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Vivid vanilla...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Peach schnapps...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) And...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) Pina colada.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) These flavors...

ELLIOTT: Vince Willmore, with the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, says these messages attract youth - especially the Sports Illustrated bikini ad.

VINCE WILLMORE: It's going to appeal to teenage boys.

ELLIOTT: Blu maker Lorillard has not responded to NPR's requests for comment. Blu's website asks if you are 18 to enter, and ads say not for minors. Willmore says nonetheless, they re-glamorize smoking, and threaten to reverse decades of progress in preventing kids from getting hooked.

WILLMORE: Kids may view them as something that they can use that's not going to harm their health without realizing that they contain very addictive nicotine. For kids, these products could serve as a gateway to nicotine addiction, and even to regular cigarette smoking.

ELLIOTT: Electronic cigarettes don't burn tobacco. They heat a nicotine-laced liquid and the smoker inhales vapor, not smoke.

After school at Woodrow Wilson High in Washington, D.C., students say some of their peers use e-cigarettes and that unlike smoking, vaping is perceived as something new and cool. Sixteen-year old Thomas Mason thinks they're beneficial.

THOMAS MASON: And the e-cigarettes is like, flavored nicotine. So as far as I think that - I think nicotine is supposed to help you stop smoking.

ELLIOTT: That perception worries Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that cigarette use among kids doubled last year. Frieden says youth are particularly susceptible to addiction, and vulnerable to ads.

DR. TOM FRIEDEN: Really, what we're seeing from the e-cigarette companies is disgraceful. They're working to get another generation of American kids addicted to nicotine.

ELLIOTT: Frieden says the FDA is working to regulate e-cigarettes and notes the first time it tried, the industry sued to stop it. He's hopeful any new regulation would prohibit marketing that might result in kids trying them. E-cigarette makers say that's going too far.

JASON CARDIFF: If you start pulling ads based on what children are going to do, there would be no alcohol advertising, there would be no condom advertising - or any other types of advertising, for that matter.

ELLIOTT: Jason Cardiff is president of the e-cigarette company Cigirex. He says Cigirex targets adult smokers looking for an alternative.

CARDIFF: We think it's very appropriate to be advertising in places that have been banned by a combustible tobacco cigarette.

ELLIOTT: Just five years ago, the industry was mostly small, independent companies. Now, all the major cigarette makers are getting in the business. The latest is Altria, parent of Marlboro maker Philip Morris. Altria is about to launch its MarkTen e-cigarette nationally.

Spokesman David Sylvia says the company supports FDA regulation, but says any new rules should not limit their ability reach potential customers.

DAVID SYLVIA: Given the fact that it is a new and emerging category, it's important to recognize that raising awareness for those adult tobacco consumers who are interested in these products is an important thing.

ELLIOTT: Interest in e-cigarettes is apparently already booming. It was a $2 billion industry last year, and industry insiders say sales are on track to hit 5 billion this year.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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