WINSTON-SALEM — For the first time since the Nixon administration, a Reynolds American Inc. tobacco product is going to be advertised on television.
R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co. is launching by mid-September a 60-second commercial in Colorado to promote its Vuse digital vapor product that debuted in a statewide test market in July. E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution in a disposable cartridge and create a vapor that is inhaled.
Cigarette advertising on television was banned by the federal government in 1971. Reynolds has been running TV ads in its Iowa test market for Zonnic, its nicotine replacement therapy product.
Reynolds is the latest major tobacco manufacturer or marketer to step through a window of opportunity – possibly fleeting – to advertise e-cigs on TV to adult smokers.
The tobacco industry, advocacy groups and consumers have been waiting since 2009 for the Food and Drug Administration to decide how it will regulate e-cigs for product safety, minimum legal age for use, flavors, marketing and retail availability.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the FDA could unveil its e-cig recommendations in October. However, it could take several months, if not more than a year, to put any regulation into place.
Reynolds spokesman David Howard said the TV commercials will run during late-night shows, and other times when adults comprise at least 85 percent of the viewership of adult-oriented content. “We will be responsible for when and where the ads run, as well as the ads themselves,” Howard said.
Daan Delen, Reynolds’ chief executive and president, says that Vuse can be an industry “game-changer because it could solve the vexing dilemma of a high volume of smokers trying e-cigs, but a limited number converting to them as their top tobacco choice.
The Vuse TV ad, unlike its competitors, does not feature anyone actually smoking the product.
Instead, the ad centers on a message that “it’s time that smoking changed forever” with an e-cig that offers “a perfect puff, first time, every time.” The ad features lab technicians in white coats focusing on the Vuse microprocessor that Reynolds claims provide a more realistic vapor experience than other e-cigs.
It also emphasizes the made-in-USA aspect of the product. The liquid for the vapor is made in Winston-Salem.
“It is a market communication vehicle available to us,” Howard said. Reynolds also is running print advertising for Vuse in Colorado.
“We see the competition using it to reach adult tobacco consumers,” Howard said. “Our goal is to educate those consumers in all effective marketing vehicles about a product that is developing promisingly.”
Vuse is following in the TV advertising footsteps of Lorillard Inc.’s blu Ecigs and NJoy. Blu Ecigs features actress Jenny McCarthy in its ads. Philip Morris USA spokesman David Sylvia said the company “plans to use a variety of communications vehicles to drive awareness, trial and purchase of MarkTen e-cigarettes among adult smokers and vapers.”
The large e-cig marketers may be trying to get as much exposure and adult smoker trial as they can before FDA regulation is set, said Roger Beahm, executive director of the Center of Retail Innovation at Wake Forest Schools of Business.
“Typically when tobacco regulations come out, they can serve to freeze or dictate market share,” Beahm said. “Reynolds may not be national with Vuse when regulations go into effect, but the advertising it can do could help separate Vuse.”
Bill Godshall, an industry analyst and executive director of SmokeFree Pennsylvania, has said he is concerned the FDA may try to ban e-cigs in what he considers a “misguided attempt to apply the quit-or-die approach to all tobacco products.”
Anti-tobacco advocates pushing for the ban of online e-cigs sales say it is necessary to keep the products out of the hands of minors. Some of the same advocates consider e-cigs – as well as smokeless tobacco and dissolvable tobacco products – as potential gateways to traditional cigarettes use.
“It is a more sophisticated ad that is less blatant in targeting young people and non-smokers than many of the others we have seen,” Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told Bloomberg News.
“It does glamorize smoking. It does make the act of smoking Vuse a 21st-century activity clearly designed to appeal to a broader public than committed smokers.”
E-cigs “likely pose less direct hazard to the individual smoker than tobacco cigarettes and might help smokers quit smoking or reduce harm by smoking fewer tobacco cigarettes,” former FDA adviser Dr. Neal Benowitz co-wrote in a July 15 report. “On the other hand, there are potential harms, including promoting continued smoking of cigarettes and renormalizing cigarette smoking behaviors.”
Beahm said Reynolds has done a good job in the Vuse TV ad of “trying to minimize the actual smoking aspect of Vuse and making no health claims, which they can’t. But you can’t eliminate the temptation and appeal to try any new product.”
Gregory Conley, legislative director for the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, said Reynolds may be willing to trade off a new wave of criticism over the Vuse TV ad for the publicity the ads may gain among Colorado smokers. “After all, who would turn down free publicity?” he asked.
Stephen Pope, the chief global market strategist with Cantor Fitzgerald Europe, said Reynolds must feel on comfortable legal ground with the Vuse TV ads.
“It is important to tread the line of legality extremely carefully, as history has shown that any misstep by the tobacco companies can open up a whole raft of lawsuits that can become class action,” Pope said. “Therefore, the policy to launch commercials has a double-edge play.
“However, Reynolds cannot stand back and allow others to steal a march on them and dominate market share. Get the message right both legally and commercially, and one can win the keys to the e-cigarette kingdom.”