Networks drop E-Cig advertising as anti-vaping fever heats up

Local TV stations already shunning ads; Juul halts all advertising 

(Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on September 22 and has been updated.)

With complaints from viewers increasing on social media and users being hospitalized (including a few in the Chicago area), three major media companies announced they were no longer accepting advertising for vaping products and e-cigarettes.

WarnerMedia, CBS, and Viacom announced they were no longer taking vaping ads as scrutiny continues to increase after numerous people have gotten sick and even a few have died from the products. WarnerMedia owns TNT, TBS, and CNN; Viacom owns numerous cable networks such as MTV and VH1; and CBS owns Pop and CBS Sports Network; not to mention an entire broadcast network and 28 owned-and-operated stations, including Chicago’s WBBM-Ch.2.

Other media groups (such as Disney or AMC Networks) have not made any announcements on the fate of such advertising, but a spokesperson for NBCUniversal told The Wrap the company has a long standing policy not to accept any advertising for tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. In Chicago, NBC owns WMAQ-Ch.5 and Telemundo affiliate WSNS-Ch.44.

According to iSpotTV – a company who tracks ad spending on television, e-cigarette advertising spent $57 million so far this year, with WarnerMedia receiving the bulk of the revenue. Among the most prominent brands advertised are Juul and Blu. On Wednesday, Juul announced they were pulling all national advertising, including television, print, and radio and replaced its CEO.

So far, no local TV stations in Chicago or elsewhere has aired any e-cig or vaping commercials on a spot basis, restricted basically to cable where viewers on Twitter have noticed a huge surge in e-cigarette advertising in recent weeks. However, a few radio stations in the Chicago area have aired some ads as some syndicated radio shows have e-cigarette and vaping ads plus CBS did air some Juul ads during The Big Bang Theory.

By law, television and radio are prohibited from airing tobacco ads with Congress passing the ban in 1970, with other tobacco products being banned from the airwaves decades later. Most other cigarette advertising vanished twenty years ago as part of a settlement with the government as tobacco companies admitted they were targeting children and adolescents. In 2010, cigarette companies were banned from sponsoring sports and other events.

The move comes as the Trump Administration is looking at banning flavored e-cig products as the number of people being hospitalized from vaping increased, with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) already demanding a probe. Recently, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced she was looking to further restrict the sale of such products (although an ordinance put together at the last minute to ban e-cigs and vaping products failed at a recent City Council meeting.) New York state and Massachusetts have already banned the products.

Last week, Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club announced they would no longer sell such products.

There were some questions on the legality of such advertising on TV and radio, given the existing cigarette ban as the vaping and e-cigarette products contain nicotine, the main ingredient found in cigarettes. Last year, the Broadcast Law Blog advised local stations about the issue, given e-cigarettes and vaping products are legal products. Of note, Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenwarcel has come out against e-cigarette advertising on television, given her concern over targeting minors.

When Congress passed the law banning television and radio cigarette advertising, broadcasters fought the move tooth and nail but wound up losing in the end. But with hardly any local stations advertising e-cigarettes or vaping products due to FCC concerns in the first place, the issue of such advertising on radio and television – not to mention a potential crackdown coming from every corner from the FDA to the Mayor’s Office, is probably moot.

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