August 2015

PERCEPTION VS. Reality

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By Cynthia Cabrera

Critics and concerned individuals point to potential “marketing to kids” by the vapor industry. Recently the discussion has reached new and frenzied heights. The media and opponents of vapor continue their assault, and the vapor industry needs to respond appropriately—but what exactly, does that look like?

The Myth

There is a perception held by some that the industry markets to kids, but perception isn’t reality. In point of fact, what we have are not-so-bright people infringing on trademarks or using tasteless images combined with loud, bright colors. But, no rational or logical person would take that as concrete evidence that this is a repeat of Big Tobacco trying to hook a new generation of customers.

Marketing is communicating the value of a product, service or brand to customers, for the purpose of promoting or selling that product, service or brand.

In order for the statement that “the vapor industry markets to kids” to be true, there has to be evidence of businesses attempting to communicate to kids the value of vapor products through distribution channels or outlets where primarily kids would see them, like Nickelodeon, Toys R Us, The Lego Store, etc. That simply doesn’t happen.

The Reality

What does happen is that uncreative and inexperienced business owners use images or graphics that are recognizable but stolen or just tasteless—but that’s not the equivalent of “marketing to kids.”

No one in the industry says these products are for kids. Age verification of consumers before completing a purchase is already standard practice for most business owners.

In more than 40 states, the law restricts sales to minors. More than 1,300 companies participate in SFATA’s Age to Vape retailer age verification program. Vapor products are for adult smokers, being sold in adult venues, by adults to other adults.

The Other Reality

There is no accounting for personal taste. The market for brightly colored bottles or bottles covered with half naked women exist because consumers are buying them. The vapor industry itself exists because there was a vacuum in the “useful alternative to combusted cigarette” space (demand) and the innovative and entrepreneurs started providing vapor products (supply). That is The Market hard at work.

Likewise, if there were no demand for these uncreative and tasteless products, no one would provide them. That’s how the market works. Many businesses, with what can only be called super “adult” themed branding, have mentioned that they don’t sell nearly the amount of product their trademark- infringing competitors do.

The Test

The vapor industry always is under attack—it is a natural to want to brand a villain in order to stop the attacks, but that’s not how this will shake out. Being tasteless is (currently) not against the law. Stealing someone’s trademark is, and the injured parties have legal avenues to remedy. The FDA is tasked with protecting the public health—not regulating morality or taste. In fact, it was the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—not the FDA—that decided the infamous Joe Camel had to go (reams of documents from Reynolds confirming their desire to hooks young consumers helped cement that case).

Rushing to judgment on social media or the airwave isn’t the answer—we should discuss the issues and determine whether there is truly a villain or just some uncreative or tasteless schmuck who could probably use some internal guidance.

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Turning against clueless or idiotic business colleagues give vapor opponents the ammunition to say, “See? The industry itself agrees that they market to kids.” That’s the start of a slippery slide down to places we don’t want the industry to have to go. Some of the long term consequences of buying into the myth that the vapor industry is marketing to kids include:

  • Giving the anti-vapor crowd the ammunition they need to turn it around on the industry. By neglecting to insist that these are adult oriented products, sold only in adult venues, by adults to adults, the door is opened to the long-term and ultimately ruinous solution that online sales be banned.
  • Inadvertently fueling the abstinence only approach to vapor in general.
  • The long-term promise of harm reduction is greatly diminished.

The Other Myths

Having Facebook pages and websites on the Internet also don’t qualify as “marketing to kids.” Right now, websites for alcoholic beverages, porn and sex toys are using bright, attractive colors including like pink, green orange and purple. They exist peacefully online, free of accusations of “marketing to kids.” These sites, including many social media pages without age verification, employ the use of cupcakes, bunnies and fuzzy, cute looking things in a variety of creative ways but no one says they are marketing to kids. Why? Because everyone knows these industries are adult-only markets. Likewise, vapor products are intended for adult smokers.

Further, parents have the ability to restrict access on computers, cellphones and tablets and they should do that. They should educate their children about the inappropriateness of minors attempting to access adult products. To subscribe to the argument that vapor products have to be regulated so that no minor ever comes within a mile of seeing one for sale is to agree that marketing is the problem and not preserving adult access to vapor so that they move away from combustible cigarettes.

Think About It

Once the discussion moves away from the fact that vapor products are adult products, sold by adult to adults in adult venues, to a discussion about bright colors, cartoons and naked women appealing more to kids than to adults you go down the rabbit hole of having to (1) determine what “appropriate marketing” looks like and (2) must empower and entrust someone to make those decisions. Who will get to decide that?

Who is the right person to determine what shade of yellow or pink or green or blue is allowed? Who decides when a cartoon character is meant for adults or kids? The television program “Archer” was the highest rated cable original program with adults 18-49. It is full of sexually explicit situations, bright colors and coarse language. It also is a cartoon.

An e-liquid manufacturer pointed out recently that his 7 year old son loves the Audi A7—a car whose average driver is over the age of 48. If we forget that the goal is to make more adults smokers aware of the potential vapor products and to have them switch to them or quit combusted cigarettes entirely using them, one day Audi may be directed to revise its design in case kids are tempted by the sleek and sexy look of the brand to try to drive before they are legally allowed to do so.

But, the perception will persist until we do address the issue cohesively and coherently. Regulations are coming, businesses are becoming more sophisticated about their marketing and consumers are becoming more educated.

All parts of this supply chain are in this together and as an industry we have the opportunity—some would say responsibility— to reinforce the positives vapor has to offer:

  • Vapor could potentially, finally do away with the 1,300 hundred deaths per day caused by smoking combusted cigarettes.
  • Vapor could make smoking obsolete altogether and the excessive health related costs associated with it.
  • Children could grow up in smoke-free homes while their parents move away from combusted cigarettes.
  • Thousands of small businesses continue creating jobs.
  • Business owners damaged by the harms of tobacco are giving others the same benefits they received.

The vapor industry is young, but willing to learn and work together.

Cynthia Cabrera is executive director of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association; the leading and largest trade association dedicated to the education, promotion and continued innovation of vapor products.

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