A free roll of toilet paper with your vape? How about hand sanitizer?
Vaping companies – long criticized for marketing that appealed to kids and implied their products were less harmful than smoking – are now under the microscope for seizing on the Covid-19 pandemic to sell their products.
Some have launched promotions offering free toilet paper, face masks or hand sanitizer with a qualifying purchase, according to a new paper published Thursday in the journal Tobacco Control.
“While we thought we’d seen it all, we never imagined that we’d see tobacco companies exploiting a global pandemic for marketing purposes,” study author Dr. Robert Jackler told CNN in an exclusive interview. “What really surprised us was how many different ways they did it, and how many companies and brands engaged in the practice.”
Jackler founded the group Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising, which has collected more than 300 Covid-related ads from 21 e-cigarette brands and 41 online stores.
In most sanitizer giveaways the researchers observed, the products came in the same bottles as e-liquids. In one case, a company described its sanitizer as “WHO recommended.”
“They offer their hand sanitizer in the same little bottle,” Jackler said. “You can very easily accidentally think that that’s for use in vaping. You pour 70% alcohol in the vaporizer, breathe it in, can do some serious harm to your lungs.”
The paper comes just one day after the US Food and Drug Administration warned consumers about alcohol-based hand sanitizers being packaged in containers that look like food or drink packaging. The agency’s commissioner, Dr. Stephen Hahn, said he was concerned that packaging hand sanitizer to look like consumable products “could confuse consumers into accidentally ingesting a potentially deadly product.”
Tony Abboud, executive director of the Vapor Technology Association, a trade group that represents e-liquid manufacturers, vape shops and other vaping professionals, maintains that vaping companies have “stepped up” during the pandemic to fill a demand for products like hand sanitizer.
The Stanford group catalogued other kinds of “COVID-19 messaging,” including discounts to frontline medical staff, promotion codes such as “StayHome,” and in one case, a UK vape store whose logo incorporated the spiked coronavirus structure. Others suggested that vaping could be a way to deal with the stress and anxiety of sheltering at home.
Jackler said that there were some “sensible public health warnings” in these ads – for example, advising consumers not to share their vape with others. But he said the marketing often “crosses the line over to promoting vaping as a healthy thing to do, a safe thing to do and something that [the company] would encourage you to do during the pandemic.”
Abboud acknowledged that people could take issue with some of the recent advertisements from vaping companies. But he also claimed some public health groups were overstepping in their messaging on vaping and Covid-19. “People in this country are scared enough as it is, so any public health group stoking those fears by suggesting a link between COVID-19 and vaping nicotine is reckless,” said Abboud.
Earlier this month, lawmakers urged the FDA to temporarily clear the market of all e-cigarettes for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. They pointed to emerging research suggesting that vaping could be linked with increased risk of exposure to, or serious illness from, Covid-19.
While smoking has been linked to higher risk of severe disease when it comes to Covid-19, experts say definitive data on e-cigarettes is still needed.
In some cases, vaping ads have addressed health concerns head-on, with one claiming the increased risk of vaping was a “myth” and that “misinformation is spreading faster than the virus itself.” A different company shared an Instagram photo of factory workers in China wearing protective gear.
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“It should be no surprise that while Americans die from a devastating pandemic and the country is galvanized by racial injustice, tobacco and vaping companies are exploiting the public health and social justice crises, and the vulnerable communities most impacted by them, to benefit their bank accounts,” the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit public health organization, said in a previous statement.
Vaping companies were previously given a May 12 deadline to submit applications for premarket review in order to keep their products on store shelves, but due to Covid-19, that deadline was extended until September 9.
Jacqueline Howard contributed to this story.