Senators Want FTC to Investigate E-Cigarette Flavors

Liquid nicotine with soda pop, candy and breakfast cereal flavors are leaving a bad taste in the mouths of some powerful legislators.

A group of Democratic senators led by veteran children's advocate Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have called on the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, Edith Ramirez, to investigate liquid nicotine retailers for unfair and deceptive practices.

At the same time they sent letters to 167 retailers asking them to stop marketing to kids, and to 25 corporations whose trademarks are being used to ask them whether they were aware their brands were being used—presumably the retailer had to pay to license them—and if so why they are helping make liquid nicotine, which is addictive, more attractive to kids.

Among the companies getting the letters were Necco, Bazooka, Kellogg, General Mills, Ferrara--the makers of Atomic Fireballs, and even the Girl Scouts of America for a "Thin Mint" branded nicotine.

The branded liquid nicotine delivery system products include A&W Root Beer, Trix, Bubblicious and Swedish Fish.

"Use of these trademarked images in this manner appears intended to make the liquid nicotine products attractive to younger smokers and perhaps even to children," they wrote.

They said that nicotine's dangerous and addictive properties are well known and pose a serious health risk.

Poison control centers have recorded an increase in the number of kids who have ingested the e-cigarette liquids, they pointed out. Among those also signing on to the letter are Al Franken (Minn.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Richard Durbin (Ill.).

"It's about time! These deadly and highly addictive products, most made under China's virtually nonexistent safety standards, have gone unregulated far too long," said public interest law professor John Banzhaf, who helped get ads for the non-smokeless cigarette off the air. "As a result, adults have been burned and injured in explosions, and toddlers have been rushed to emergency rooms, sometimes in comas.

Banzhaf points out in the interests of full disclosure that he has very publicly opposed unregulated e-cigarettes and filed a legal action that led to the FDA asserting jurisdiction over them. He has also pushed localities, in some cases successfully, to prohibit e-cigarettes when they ban smoking.

The FTC signaled back in October it wanted to look into e-cigarettes, including the various flavors and nicotine strengths of sales and giveaways.

Regular cigarettes have not been advertised on TV since 1971, when the industry agreed to accept a federal ban on radio and TV ads.

Former Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) trained a critical eye on the e-cigarette industry and its seemingly kid-targeted flavorings in one of his last hearings in Congress.

The tone was decidedly angry and accusatory, with Democrats in particular characterizing it as a repeat of the Big Tobacco hearings, where companies took an oath, and then lied. At that hearing, Boxer was particularly incensed by the flavors, like cotton candy and Popsicle. She hammered the marketers in that hearing over what appeared to be an obvious targeting to kids, including ads that appeared to feature Smurfs smoking. Boxer pointed out that one of the slogans for an e-cigarette is "Let it Glow," when the top song from the top animated movie, Frozen, is "Let it Go."

"We are seeing a repeat, and we here in this committee get it," she said. "Don't be a part of this," she said to the industry witnesses, "because you will regret it."

Republicans on that panel focused on industry arguments that the e-cigs were helping people wean themselves off the tobacco and its tars and smoke-related issues.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.