Tobacco companies are using flavoured e-cigarettes as ‘adolescent training wheels’ to target their next generation of customers, while circumventing advertising restrictions to reach millions in Australia and around the world, experts say.
Recent examples of advertising to reach Australian eyeballs include British American Tobacco’s partnership with Formula 1 team McLaren, which has branded its cars with marketing for Velo flavoured nicotine pouches and Vuse heated tobacco devices.
The products have also been marketed via social media influencers in countries such as New Zealand owing to a loophole in Kiwi tobacco advertising restrictions.
And even in Australia, tobacco firms have succeeded in running advertisements on websites such as Facebook and LinkedIn in the guise of political campaigns or corporate social responsibility.
University of Sydney public health academic Associate Professor Becky Freeman presented an update on the industry’s tactics at a symposium in Sydney this week, warning regulators remained a step behind around the world.
In the case of British American Tobacco’s McLaren deal, race cars decorated with the company’s advertising had gone on to appear in the Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive, viewed by around one billion people globally, she said.
“We thought back in the 90s we had banned sponsorship of these events by the tobacco industry,” Professor Freemen said.
“Yet you have Netflix, who claims not to take tobacco industry money, producing a show that is filled with race cars which have tobacco industry advertising on them that enables the show to go ahead. So they have reinvented what it means to be a sponsor.”
Also speaking at the symposium was leading tobacco control expert Emeritus Professor Simon Chapman, who raised serious concerns about the impact of flavouring agents in e-cigarettes.
Frequently sweet and fruity to appeal to juvenile tastes, these were a “major reason that children are attracted to vaping,” said Professor Chapman.
“So when I asked my 11-year-old granddaughter how many kids in her class had vaped and why they did it, she replied to me ‘well you can get lemonade, Papa.’ The effect of that doesn’t even bear thinking about.”
He added: “Just as alco-pops are adolescent training wheels for adult drinking, flavours are an important driver of children vaping.”
Despite manufacturers’ assertions to the contrary, these flavouring agents were typically designed to be consumed in food and drink and not fully safety tested for use via inhalation, Professor Chapman said.
In addition, the propylene glycol frequently used as an excipient in e-cigarettes carried health warnings in other contexts stressing it should not be inhaled, he pointed out.
It comes after the federal government announced legislation to tighten its crackdown on nicotine vaping products, which are already prescription-only in Australia.
The government has said the importation of illicit products remains a major concern, with more than 35 tonnes of black market vapes seized in Australia over the past month alone.
The reforms, currently before parliament, include mandatory licences and permits to import any therapeutic vape as well as further advertising restrictions.
But the battle was likely to continue, Professor Chapman warned.
“If these reforms get through it will be fantastic news and, just like plain packaging, show Australia is pioneering this field once again,” he said.
“However, the use of these flavouring agents just shows how companies will exploit regulatory exceptions.”
Moreover, Australia’s approach contrasted with that in countries like the UK, where e-cigarettes were still seen by public health officials as of limited danger.
“The UK is really an outlier internationally. The cult of vaping in UK public health is something really interesting,” he added.
Beyond that, the entire system for regulating tobacco industry advertising needed an overhaul, Professor Freeman argued.
“We need to require industry to actually disclose all their marketing activities so they have to tell us what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and where,” she said.
“This should be a legal requirement if these companies want to operate in our country. Anything else is just doing the same catch-up game over again.”