Just Who Is Actually Marketing Vapes To Children?

Carl V. Phillips | Contributor

Tobacco controllers falsely accuse merchants of marketing to “children” anytime their messages might be seen by someone under 19 or even 25. Since teenagers are not sealed inside an information bubble, this means that almost any communications will draw this accusation. If a merchant was to put out the message “hey, high-schoolers, all the other kids are vaping” they would genuinely be marketing to children. This, of course, does not happen. It is the tobacco controllers themselves who are engaged in marketing to children, with messages like that and many others.

Tobacco controllers perform experiments and focus group studies with minors which inevitably make the subjects curious about vaping even if they had never before given it a second thought. If a vapor product manufacturer ever sponsored a focus group of minors — even if it was to try to figure out how to best discourage them from vaping — tobacco controllers would be so apoplectic they would be at risk of heart attacks. Despite that potential temptation, it would never be done.

But research is the tip of the iceberg. Far more minors are exposed to tobacco control’s media blitzes. For example, the exposure described by Skip Murray, a Minnesota vape shop proprietor and vaping advocate:

The 16-year-old was not motivated by observing his peers vaping, but by the news telling him that all the cool kids are vaping. Who caused that? It was the tobacco controllers who are trying to spread this moral panic with their press conferences and broadsides. Setting aside the arguments that it is not necessarily bad that teenagers experiment with vaping, tobacco controllers wish everyone to believe it is (and, indeed, demand we endorse it). Yet they are causing what they claim to be the main problem with vaping.

There are several explanations for this apparently self-defeating behavior. First, tobacco controllers never engage in serious program evaluation, the study of the impact of a particular policy. They sometimes do mock program evaluations, conducted by people who have an obvious conflict of interest for claiming success for a policy (typically those who designed and advocated for it). These, of course, are designed to “show” that the policy is working. But because they never genuinely evaluate impacts, they have no idea what really advances their goals.

In this case, the impacts on minors — making vaping more intriguing — are fairly obvious. But not only do tobacco controllers not evaluate impacts, but they do not even think about them. Their actions and words are just wild flailing, acting on whatever urge crosses their mind.

The impact on minors is also not really that important to them. Just as the “child-friendly flavors” trope is really an excuse to lower the quality of vapor products — to make them merely a somewhat tolerable smoking-cessation medicine rather than a source of pleasure — the “marketing to children” claims are mostly just anti-marketing. Tobacco controllers condemn the idea of marketing to children, and many non-extremists support this too. But they conveniently never explain how marketing could be done in such a way that they would not call it “to children.” They never say “if you only did X, that would not be marketing to children,” other than suggesting that X is “do not market at all” — which is what they really want anyway. Claims about what constitutes marketing to children range from minors seeing a coupon they cannot legally use to brands merely having distinctive packaging. Moreover, industry frequently gets accused of marketing to children just because messages about products from third-parties — anything that does not fiercely condemn them, let alone says something positive — exist on the internet.

There are legitimate arguments for forbidding marketing of cigarettes (real marketing, not every possible communication to customers). These do not extend to low-risk products. In addition, low-risk products can better compete with cigarettes if producers are allowed to market to their target audience, smokers who might want a low-risk alternative.

Finally, it is worth considering a “three dimensional chess” take on this behavior: Tobacco controllers want to be seen as defenders against supposed problems, like teenage vaping. They thus have the incentive to look like they are fighting the “problem” while they are actually working to perpetuate it. If they were successful in fighting it they would be out of business. It is history’s classic dilemma of having standing armies — they tend to want wars. By encouraging teenage vaping, they have the excuse they need to wage war on adult vaping. This is one reason tobacco control works to protect cigarettes from low-risk competitors. But in this case it is probably giving them too much credit. They just appear oblivious to the real effects of their flailing messages.

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Carl V. Phillips

Contributor

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