When it comes to vaping, let’s not make the mistakes of the past

I have always believed that advertising and regulation go hand in hand.

Advertising needs regulating because of its power. We understand that better than anyone else because we use it every day to phenomenal commercial effect and know that power is easily misused. Indeed, the failure to regulate political advertising and subject it to the same standards of the rest of our industry threatens our very democracy.

But advertising doesn’t just need regulation it also benefits from it, because we only operate and our work is only effective with the consent of the society we serve. Society’s regulation of what we do makes advertising sustainable over the long term by ensuring it serves our economy appropriately.

And as society’s priorities change over time what we are allowed to advertise and how we are allowed to do so change. Indeed, in thirty years of being in the business I have watched tobacco advertising become illegal and seen the ban removed on TV advertising for tampons.

However, there are occasions when we need to lead society and not to follow. When we need to say that we do not believe the power of what we do should be used to promote a specific product or behaviour.

As an industry we now need to take a stand against people using our talents to promote vaping beyond the current ban on TV and online. We simply cannot allow ourselves to make the mistakes of the past and let our creativity facilitate a new epidemic of addiction, especially amongst our young people.

I accept that we do not categorically know that vaping is harmful. Though concern is mounting over the chemical composition of e-liquids and specifically the chemical reactions that take place in the cocktail of ingredients as they are heated – even if reported deaths in the US have much to do with vaping of cannabis compounds.

I accept that even if vaping is dangerous it is likely that this danger is a fraction of that posed by smoking itself. Though, evidence mounts that vaping is a gateway to nicotine addiction for the young every bit as much as it is a smoking cessation strategy – if not more so. Vaping use amongst children who have never smoked is doubling every year leading to addiction problems now and throughout life.

I accept that at present in the UK Public Health England believes that vaping should be actively promoted to reduce rates of smoking, backed by the Royal College of Physicians. But the UK is increasingly isolated on this one.

I accept that virtually everything that we advertise could cause harm if taken to excess, after all you can theoretically die from drinking too much caffeine. Though in reality you need to consume more coffee than the body can physically hold to achieve a fatal dose.

But what I cannot accept is that in the window between the emergence of these products, and a more complete understanding of their impact and potential dangers that our industry should be used to mount a ‘land grab’ over people’s lives and future health.

More than that, it profoundly upsets me that our talents and energies might be directed to creating a set of consumer behaviours that we will then be asked to resolve over the decades to come through massive public health education campaigns. Some might regard this as an admirable work creation scheme for the communications industry, I am minded to regard it as unethical in the extreme.

I am not advocating a ban on the products and liquids themselves, as many countries have already done. Although, the case for a ban on disposable vapes and flavours designed to attract children is unarguable.

And in any case banning the stuff is none of my business, my business is how the power of advertising is harnessed and to what end.

Which is not at all as far as I am concerned – a complete ban on the promotion of vaping outside medical settings. Of course, there seems little hope of this at present, although the Government is at last waking up to the problem of vaping amongst children.

In the meantime you may feel that there is little you can do if our regulators are slow to act against e-cigarette advertising. But that is nonsense, the last time around the change started with individuals refusing to work on tobacco, then whole agencies, then the business at large.

As an industry we were judged wanting when it came to tobacco, let’s not make the same mistake with vaping

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