The U.K.'s first three e-cigarette commercials have been banned from U.K. television following viewer complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority.
The spots for E-Lites, SKYCIG and Ten Motives – the only commercials for e-cigarettes to have aired on U.K. television – were banned for failing to clearly identify the product being advertised. The E-Lites ad was also banned for being appealing to children.
A spokesman for the ASA, the U.K.'s independent industry regulatory body, said, "These rulings set an important precedent. It's a useful benchmark for the sector: useful for consumers to know that we are responding to their concerns, and useful for practitioners in the sector to see how the rules are applied."
In their efforts to comply with the ad codes, the marketers were guilty of lack of clarity. All three spots are pretty obscure because they try so hard not to promote smoking that they neglect to mention what the product does. While they were condemned for being misleading, the ads were cleared by the ASA of being "irresponsible and harmful."
The ASA spokesman denied the codes are confusing. He said, "The codes are clear, they show what you can and can't do, but these are the first cases and there are some initial teething problems." The ASA deliberately grouped the three rulings together in the same week to avoid singling out one particular e-cigarette marketer.
The codes relating to e-cigarettes state that they cannot be advertised to children, refer to smoking, or have a name or design that an audience might associate with a tobacco product. And marketers can't claim that they are healthier than smoking regular cigarettes.
Douglas Mutter, operations manager for Meech Marketing, which distributes and markets SKYCIG in the U.K., said, "With any new product or industry it can be difficult learning what is right for everyone involved…The guidelines can be restrictive in terms of what we can portray in our television advertising, however…we now have a good understanding of what we can and cannot say."
The SKYCIG and Ten Motives spots had only one complaint each, but E-Lites received 65 complaints (only one from an anti-smoking group) possibly because the spot, by McCann Central, ran during prime time from January and featured a baby whose first steps incorporate a Gangnam Style dance move. Although it was only shown around programs aimed at viewers 16 years and over, the ASA ruled, "Because we considered that the content of the ad would be of particular interest to children and also referred to smoking, we concluded that the ad breached the code."
Trevor Field, sales and marketing director of E-Lites, said, "We were disappointed because we worked for 12 months with Clearcast [the body which pre-approves all TV ads before they go on air] to walk the right line. Obviously we disagree with the interpretation [that the ad appeals to children] but you've got to keep going forward."
British e-cigarette marketers are struggling to get to grips with the rules while they can still advertise on TV. Starting in 2016, e-cigarettes will be classified as medicines in the U.K. and will need to get a special license before they can advertise at all. Similar restrictions are expected across the European Union at the same time, bringing e-cigarettes into the same category as nicotine patches or nicotine chewing gum.
According to the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, there are around 1.3 million users of e-cigarettes in the U.K. and 9 million regular smokers.
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration is expected to rule on e-cigarettes in October, when it is likely to assume regulatory control over the category, allowing it to impose restrictions. These may include bans on both sale to minors and TV ads. The public will have time to voice its opinions before any law is made final. Ad spending in the category is climbing fast, with Lorillard, which makes America's top-selling e-cigarette, Blu, planning to spend $40 million a year on ads.
Attitudes to e-cigarettes vary from country to country. In New Zealand and Austria, they are already classified as medicines, and the product has been banned in Australia, Brazil, Lebanon and Singapore, even though tobacco is on sale in all those countries.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said new rules on e-cigarette ads were expected in the U.S. in October from the Federal Drug Administration. The agency is the Food and Drug Administration.