A TV advertising campaign for a brand of nicotine-based electronic cigarettes is set to test the limits of a UK ban on the promotion of tobacco-related products, which has been in effect since 1965.
The ad for E-Lites will feature Waterloo Road star Mark Benton as a smoker who misses his baby son’s first steps – and subsequent Gangnam Style dancing – when he nips outside for a cigarette.
Running with the strapline “What are you missing?” the campaign will air from Saturday 19 January on channels including ITV, Channel 5 and Sky, as well as in print and online.
So-called e-cigarettes deliver a dose of nicotine on inhalation but do not contain tobacco. Unlike existing licenced over-the-counter nicotine inhalers, E-Lites resemble real cigarettes, with some products sold in red and white packets very similar to cigarette cartons.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which investigates complaints about ads, said that its rules on the advertising of tobacco products also extend to other items that imply a reference to smoking or are seen to promote it.
“The primary intent of [our] rules is… to ban advertisements for tobacco products in line with the various pieces of legislation in this area… [but] we also have rules restricting products similar to tobacco products, references to smoking or tobacco products and the promotion of smoking in general," said an ASA spokesperson.
“As it stands, it is our view that the advertising of e-cigarettes on TV is likely to be severely restricted owing to [these rules], so the kinds of claims and images that could be used to promote them is incredibly limited.”
The likelihood of the ad breaching regulations could therefore hinge on whether the cigarette-style products appear on screen and, if so, whether that is considered to be promoting smoking.
Either way, the ASA says the E-Lites ad could prove to be a landmark case that prompts a change or clarification in regulations.
"There are discussions on-going in government about whether e-cigarettes that contain nicotine should be licensed as smoking cessation therapies ie, whether they are medicines," said the spokesperson.
"We are currently waiting for The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to come to a conclusion... If the MHRA decides to go down the licensing route, then existing products will have to apply for a marketing authorisation (similar to any other medicine); products without a license would not be allowed to advertise at all."
E-Lites marketing director Trevor Field said the product could help smokers who had found themselves unable to quit through other means.
“We appreciate that it is better to quit smoking altogether but there are over 10 million smokers in the UK, many of whom are unwilling or unable to quit. E-Lites offer a harm reducing alternative and we know that we can give smokers a healthier, cheaper and more socially acceptable option to tobacco cigarettes. The TV ad is a great way to communicate that message.”
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), the campaigning public health charity, said it broadly supported that view.
“In principle, we support smokers switching to smokeless nicotine products because it’s the smoke that kills you, not the nicotine – although nicotine is potentially addictive, it is not toxic or harmful on its own. We do think that these products should be regulated... but there are never any circumstances when it’s better to smoke than to use non-tobacco, non-smoke nicotine products.
"The NHRA... is looking at how it can regulate [e-cigarettes] because it felt by forcing these products off the market it might lead smokers into going back to smoking."