The fall of the tobacco industry is largely regarded as one of America’s greatest public health success stories. But e-cigarettes, the cigarette’s modern successors, are flourishing and being marketed as a healthy alternative. However, a new Center for Environmental Health report found that a majority of e-cigarette products produce cancer-causing chemicals. The fight for appropriate marketing and regulation of e-cigarettes is likely the next big consumer battle.
In the 1950s and ’60s, cigarettes were everywhere — on game shows, cartoons, and billboards. The industry held a tremendous amount of power. However, in the late 1960s, after the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee issued a report officially recognizing the health risks of tobacco, things started to change. At the time, 42% of adults in the U.S. smoked. Today that number is down to 20%.1
How did we fight back against the juggernaut of big tobacco and reduce the rate of smoking by more than half?
Immense public pressure. The Surgeon General’s report received widespread media attention, and the public and the government started to listen. By 1970, television and radio advertisements for cigarettes were banned, and in the 1980s, some smoking bans were implemented on U.S. domestic flights. Gradually, the “cool” facade of the cigarette was peeled away.
A moment very emblematic of this peeling was R.J. Reynolds Co.’s retiring of the “Old Joe Camel” mascot in the late ’90s, a character that used to be instantly recognizable to most American children. In fact, a 1991 study showed that young children recognized the Camel cigarette mascot as well as they recognized Mickey Mouse.2 This study shocked the nation, and numerous groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association took action against Old Joe Camel.3 Under pressure, R.J. Reynolds Company pulled the mascot voluntarily.
In 2006, several major tobacco companies were held liable for violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), and in 2009 this charge was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals.4 The case affirmed that tobacco companies had “engaged in a decades-long conspiracy”4 to mislead the American people. It was a great victory.
Many of us thought the cigarette battle was largely over — today there are regulations on cigarettes that keep our children and the broader American public safe.
But think again: a Center for Environmental Health report found cancer-causing gases in the vapor of e-cigarettes, and yet they are essentially unregulated.5 Ninety-seven e-cigarettes and other vaping products were tested (a mix of disposable, refillable, and cartridge devices) and almost 90% of the companies whose products were tested had one or more products that produced dangerous levels of acetaldehyde and/or formaldehyde — cancer-causing chemicals. It should be noted that even nicotine-free products produced these chemicals.
Still, e-cigarette use is on the rise. This is likely because they’re marketed as the healthier, cheaper, cleaner, and more modern alternative to cigarettes.5 In fact, there are even advertisements with doctors approving them.5
This marketing means that many children and teens have taken up e-cigarette smoking because of the mistaken belief that it is healthier. According to the Center for Disease Control, e-cigarette use among middle and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014.5 As the Center for Environmental Health’s new report shows, this industry is targeting minors, just as the tobacco industry once did.5
The public must see through e-cigarettes’ deceptive marketing, which presents them as an answer for those who would like to smoke but would also like to stay healthy. E-cigarettes are certainly not the solution: the truth of the matter is, there is no safe way to smoke. You can support the regulations of e-cigarettes and the protection of our children here.
For the full list of companies producing cancer-causing e-cigarettes, read the report.
Have you had any experiences with the e-cigarette industry? We’d love to hear your story. Please send it to: [email protected].
2The New York Times, “Smoking Among Children Is Linked To Cartoon Camel in Advertisements,” 1991.
3Stanford School of Medicine, “Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising,” Viewed on 9/14/2015.
4Public Health Law Center, “United States v. Philip Morris,” 2010.
5Center for Environmental Health, “A Smoking Gun: Cancer-causing chemicals in e-cigarettes,” 2015.
State Director, Maryland PIRG
Emily directs strategy, organizational development, research, communications and legislative advocacy for Maryland PIRG. Emily has helped win small donor public financing in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Howard County, Montgomery County, and Prince George's County. She has played a key role in establishing new state laws to to protect public health by restricting the use of antibiotics on Maryland farms, require testing for lead in school drinking water and restrict the use of toxic flame retardant and PFAS chemicals. Emily also serves on the Executive Committees of the Maryland Fair Elections Coalition and the Maryland Campaign to Keep Antibiotics Working. Emily lives in Baltimore City with her husband, kids, and dog.