Vaping And Cigarette Ads Robert Jackler is a surgeon who's spent years researching tobacco and e-cigarette ads. He talks with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about what those ads have in common.

Vaping And Cigarette Ads

Vaping And Cigarette Ads

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Robert Jackler is a surgeon who's spent years researching tobacco and e-cigarette ads. He talks with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about what those ads have in common.


It's been a bad summer for people who vape. As of Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control has reported six deaths and 380 cases of respiratory illness related to e-cigarettes in the United States. While those cases seem to be tied to additives, much of the criticism for vaping centers on its advertising, which appears to target young people. All this is very familiar to Dr. Robert Jackler. He's a surgeon at Stanford University in California who spent years researching ads for big tobacco and e-cigarettes alike. Dr. Jackler, welcome to the program.

ROBERT JACKLER: Thank you, Lulu. It's good to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now, most of your research has been focused on print advertising. But since this is radio, let's listen to an old Marlboro ad. And we'll explain why we're doing this in a moment. Here's one touting the benefits of a new filter.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, a new filter causes (ph) a significant breakthrough in cigarette engineering, places Marlboro among the leading filter cigarettes in low-tar and nicotine delivery. The latest published information from impartial outside sources reports Marlboro's position.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the early days, cigarette manufacturers promoted the health benefits of smoking - right? - which is something vaping companies have emulated.

JACKLER: Yeah. You know, it's a remarkable story because many of the brands said, use ours because it's safer and healthier. And that's where we got filters that supposedly remove the bad stuff from the smoke, which, in fact, was not true. And then later, you got all these very clever marketing terms, like light cigarettes or super light or ultralight, which the consumer - seeing that phrase meant safe, super safe and ultra-safe, even though, of course, they weren't.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how has vaping tried to position itself emulating these tactics?

JACKLER: Well, vaping ads from very early on in vaping began by saying, this is a healthier product. And they did it sometimes explicitly, saying, use this to quit that horrible smoking. Or they would say, you know, good for your health. Even some of the e-cigarettes in the early era called themselves lung buddy and things like that. But more recently, you have devices such as Juul using kind of proxy terms for more healthy - like switch and alternative. But when a consumer sees these ads, they know exactly what it means. The message is this would be a healthier thing for you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And e-cigarette maker Juul has adopted some visuals from Marlboro, as well. It's not just some of their tactics. But they're literally playing on the same visual cues.

JACKLER: So the two founders of Juul, who are Stanford design students - I think they realized, you know, the most successful advertising in history was the tobacco advertising. Why reinvent the wheel? And, in fact, they copied, faithfully, Marlboro cigarettes, the No. 1 cigarette around the world and the No. 1 youth-initiation cigarette in America - and so closely that Marlboro - Philip Morris actually sued them shortly after they launched and said, this is too much like our advertising.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And another big concern of e-cigarette critics is the flavored varieties like bubble gum that seemed to target young people. The Trump administration now wants to ban most flavored e-cigarettes. Is there anything that we can learn from the regulations against big tobacco? I seem to recall that the FDA banned kid-friendly flavors of regular cigarettes in 2009. Did that work?

JACKLER: It helped, certainly. But this industry is well-known for escaping the well-meaning intent of regulation. So, for example, in 2009, we had cocoa-flavored cigarettes and various things being put forward by major American tobacco companies. Those went away in 2010 from the Congressional action. What do we see? The next year, you start getting a proliferation of mini cigars - two for for under a dollar - in flavors like banana and wine grape and rum-flavored and the same thing with chewing tobacco and hookah. So although e-cigarettes use literally thousands of flavors, so do many remaining tobacco products. You know, there are very few 40-year-olds that say, hey. I think I'm going to start smoking today. It is very much a teen rebellion kind of thing between the ages of about 12 and 19 or 20. And the industry knows that. And so the advertising is really aimed at starter smokers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why is it important, do you think, to highlight the similarities in the way that the e-cigarette industry has emulated the traditional cigarette industry in their advertising?

JACKLER: Well, I think it's important because what Congress and the FDA really should do is to make parallel all of the policies enforced for cigarettes, stringently limiting the flavors, limiting youth advertising. And there are many different ways in which the e-cigarette community has completely ignored all of the boundaries with tobacco marketing. In fact, they've gone back to practices in the 1930s and 1940s and before that would never be permitted for cigarettes today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Dr. Robert Jackler. He's a surgeon at Stanford University in Northern California. Thank you very much.

JACKLER: Thank you, Lulu.

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