December 22, 2020

Warren, Blumenthal, Durbin, Krishnamoorthi and DeGette Question Tobacco Companies Exploitative e-Cigarette Advertisements During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Extensive Use of Social Media Indicates Abusive Promotions Are Aimed at Youth "Exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic of a respiratory disease to promote a product that increases risk for the very same disease is unconscionable"

Letter to BAT (PDF) | Letter to PMI (PDF) | Letter to FDA & FTC (PDF)

Washington, DC - After a recent study by public health experts at Stanford University revealed that numerous tobacco companies - including several subsidiaries of British American Tobacco (BAT) and Philip Morris International (PMI) - have "chosen to exploit a global pandemic for marketing purposes," United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) along with Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform's Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, and Congresswoman Dianna DeGette (D-Colo.), Chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee's Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee, sent letters to BAT, PMI, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) questioning the tobacco companies' exploitation of the  COVID-19 pandemic to market their e-cigarette products using abusive and misleading tactics aimed at youths and adolescents, and seeking information on the enforcement actions taken by the agencies to regulate these advertisements. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, several subsidiaries of tobacco and e-cigarette companies BAT and PMI have taken advantage of the ongoing public health emergency to promote the sale of their products. The research conducted by a group of public health experts at Stanford found that in over 300 COVID-themed e-cigarette advertisements, several companies offered essential supplies such as hand sanitizer, face masks, toilet paper, and other materials in short supply as free gifts with the purchase of a vaping product to increase revenue. Some even falsely claimed that vaping is not associated with an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Moreover, these companies appear to have specifically targeted underage users, placing the vast majority of advertisements  on Instagram and Twitter, a potential violation of federal law. This is particularly concerning given individuals with a history of chronic respiratory illness such as asthma, as well as individuals that smoke or use e-cigarettes, are at greater risk for suffering more severe symptoms of COVID-19. 

"These advertisements are a blatant exploitation of a pandemic that has killed nearly two million people across the world and devastated the lives of countless more. They are reckless and endanger millions, especially as countries around the globe are experiencing yet another surge in cases," the lawmakers wrote in their letters. 

"This attempt to profit off the back of a global health crisis, reminiscent of decades of false and misleading advertising about cigarettes by tobacco companies, represents a callous indifference to the lives and well-being of millions of people across the world," the lawmakers continue. 

In order to better understand BAT and PMI's abusive promotional activities, the lawmakers requested copies of the company's advertisements, a list of subsidiaries that distribute their products, internal documents discussing the company's COVID-19 advertisement practices, and any communications with federal public health officials regarding the content of these advertisements. 

Together, the FDA and the FTC are responsible for the oversight and regulation of unfair, deceptive, and potentially harmful advertisements. In the letter to FTC and FDA, the lawmakers request a staff-level briefing as well as information regarding the agencies' enforcement authority related to e-cigarette advertisement and promotional activities, whether the agencies have received complaints regarding of e-cigarette or vaping products during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to what extent the agencies have communicated with e-cigarette manufacturers regarding their promotional activities during the pandemic. 

Senator Warren has worked with her colleagues in Congress to urge federal regulators and electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) companies, like JUUL Labs, to combat the growing public health crisis of vaping-related illnesses and the epidemic of youth tobacco use and to hold regulators and e-cigarette companies accountable. Her ongoing oversight work includes:

  • Urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to move immediately and aggressively to review e-cigarette products and take action to protect children and the public's health.
  • Writing to the CEO of JUUL raising concerns about the company's partnership with Big Tobacco giant Altria, and questioning its marketing tactics to hook children on nicotine with kid-appealing flavors.
  • Writing to the FDA regarding reports that e-cigarette use may be correlated to the occurrence of seizures, and urging the agency to swiftly conduct a public health review of e-cigarettes.
  • Sending a letter to Acting FDA Commissioner Norman Sharpless recognizing the ten-year anniversary of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act -- legislation that gave FDA sweeping authority to regulate the manufacturing, distribution, and marketing of all tobacco products -- and urging the FDA to act quickly and decisively to protect kids from dangerous tobacco products.
  • Calling on companies such as eBay, Alibaba, and Craigslist to crack down on listings for e-cigarettes and vaping products on their marketplace that provide youth an avenue to purchase these items without any age verification.
  • Demanding answers from the heads of the FDA, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on their actions to address the health impacts of e-cigarette products, as illnesses and even deaths are increasingly linked to vaping.
  • Requesting that Senate Appropriators include a $100 million investment in the final, bipartisan appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2020 to boost public health data infrastructure as the nation's public health system struggles to adequately monitor and address  the ongoing outbreak of vaping-related illnesses.
  • Urging HHS to take long-overdue steps to stop the youth e-cigarette epidemic.
  • Writing to JUUL Labs and Altria regarding their companies' role in fueling the youth vaping epidemic and probing the recent corporate marriage of JUUL--the most popular e-cigarette product among children-- with Altria, a large manufacturer of traditional tobacco products, including Marlboro cigarettes and Black & Mild cigars.