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Lawmakers question tobacco companies’ use of COVID-19 pandemic to market e-cigarettes

A bicameral group of federal lawmakers – led by U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) – sent letters to some of the nation’s largest tobacco companies demanding more information on the companies’ exploitation of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to market their vaping products to youth.

The move comes in response to a recent study done by a group of public health experts at Stanford University that found numerous tobacco companies – including several subsidiaries of British American Tobacco and Philip Morris International – have chosen to take advantage of the ongoing public health emergency to promote the sale of their products.

Several companies, according to the study, offered to provide customers with essential items that were in short supply – such as hand sanitizer, face masks and toilet paper – as free gifts with the purchase of a vaping product to increase their revenue during the crisis.

In a series of letters sent today to British American Tobacco, Philip Morris, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission, the lawmakers demanded the companies provide them more information on their use of the COVID-19 pandemic to market their e-cigarette products, and demanded more information from federal regulators on what, if any, enforcement actions they are taking in regards to the companies’ advertisements.

“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 wrote. “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.”

Researchers at Stanford University who conducted the study reviewed over 300 COVID-themed e-cigarette advertisements and found tobacco companies “have chosen to exploit a global pandemic for marketing purposes.”

Their report found, among other things, that tobacco companies’ ads falsely claimed that vaping was not associated with an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. And those ads, according to the researchers, appear to have been specifically targeted to underage users on various social media platforms, including Instagram and Twitter – a potential violation of federal law.

To better understand the companies’ potentially abusive promotional activities during the pandemic, the lawmakers requested copies of the companies’ advertisements, a list of their 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.

The FDA and the FTC are, together, responsible for the oversight and regulation of unfair, deceptive, and potentially harmful advertisements.

In their letter to the two agencies, the lawmakers requested more information on 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.

A copy of the lawmakers’ letter to FDA & FTC is here, the letter to Philip Morris is here, and the letter to BAT is here.

Congresswoman Diana DeGette