Dianne Draper was aghast.
She was speaking with a group of Colorado Springs teens in September when a girl began touting R.J. Reynolds' "digital vapor device," introduced to the local market just three months earlier.
"I tried to let her know it was an e-cigarette," says Draper, of the American Lung Association. "She said, 'No, it's a Vuse.' That was the first time I realized the marketing was really working."
In the first quarter of 2014, R.J. Reynolds will make Utah its second-ever market for Vuse, bringing with it a marketing blitz that includes online, radio and, yes, even television ads.
Big Tobacco had been off the airwaves for more than 40 years due to 1971's Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act. But e-cigarettes battery-powered devices that turn a liquid derived from tobacco into a vapor are a thus-far-unregulated source of nicotine. And while they stop well short of having Fred Flintstone tell children that "Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should," tobacco companies are nonetheless scrambling to capitalize on their likely fleeting freedom.
E-cig maker blu hired actors Stephen Dorff and Jenny McCarthy for 60-second pitches on late-night cable television that "Saturday Night Live" parodied with a spot for "e-meth."
In 2010, without any apparent compensation, Utah resident and actress Katherine Heigl shared a "vape" live on CBS with quintuple bypass recipient David Letterman.
"I just screamed when I saw that," Draper said. "This is taking the healthy tobacco movement back many decades."
Vuse looks like a tiny metallic pen. R.J. Reynolds the maker of Camel, American Spirit and Pall Mall cigarettes says that what separates it from other e-cigarettes is that it charges via USB and has a microprocessor that adjusts the power of the heat delivered to the smoker 2,000 times per second. The liquid is made of nicotine (which comes from tobacco), vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol, water and flavorings.
Vuse's abstract TV ad evokes a mobile phone commercial, with vibrant time-lapse scenery and the slow-motion splashdown of a magmalike liquid that sparks, it says, a new age of tobacco consumption. Reynolds spokesman Richard Smith said the commercial targets a late-night audience, and he expects that it will primarily air on cable.
"We don't want these advertised or made available to youths," he said. "The focus is on the technology behind the product rather than glamorizing smoking."
In September, Utah Attorney General John Swallow was one of 40 attorneys general to sign a letter urging the FDA to regulate e-cigarettes the same way it regulates tobacco, specifically citing concerns about advertising. (The FDA did not return a request for comment.)
Utah is one of 28 states that bars sales of e-cigarettes to underage smokers and one of three states (North Dakota and New Jersey are the others) in which e-cigarettes can't be smoked indoors a major selling point for the odorless and purportedly noncarcinogenic devices.
"While it seems like our legislation and our laws around them are pretty flimsy, on the whole, our laws are some of the strongest in the nation," said Adam Bramwell, spokesman for the Utah Department of Health's Tobacco Prevention and Control Program. Still, Bramwell said, a survey of Utah's youths found that 1.9 percent of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders had tried e-cigs in 2011, and that by 2013, that number had risen to 5.9 percent. Only 3.8 percent had smoked normal cigarettes.
"E-cigarettes are becoming the new nicotine-delivery vehicle of choice," he said. "This could set them up for a lifetime of nicotine addiction."
And R.J. Reynolds doesn't dispute that.
"They contain nicotine. Nicotine's addictive, and there is no safe tobacco product," said Smith, who believes it's on a par with caffeine. But, he says, e-cigarettes do not burn anything, they do not create secondhand smoke, and they do not produce ash or litter, so R.J. Reynolds hopes the FDA's eventual regulations will be less stringent and allow for TV ads.
Draper and Bramwell contend that there's no telling yet if any of those claims are true. What's more, while R.J. Reynolds makes clear that Vuse is not a smoking-cessation product, their competitors are making that pitch for them.
(The Davis County Board of Health recently began considering a ban on such claims.)
Smith said Utah with the lowest prevalence of cigarette-smoking adults in the U.S. is the next stop for R.J. Reynolds simply because of geographic logistics. Vuse started in Colorado in July and the company plans to extend it nationwide by mid-2014.
In Colorado, Vuse has captured more than half the market share. Colorado stores are selling the device for $9.99 and packages of two recyclable cartridges for $5.99. Unlike other brands that have drawn criticism for child-luring flavors (like blu's Vivid Vanilla or Cherry Crush), Vuse comes in two varieties: original and menthol.
Bramwell said it's too early to reach any scientific conclusions about e-cigs. But even if it's a far cry from the days when R.J. Reynolds was saying, "More doctors smoke Camels," it's disturbing that cigarette companies are again controlling the message.
"I don't see those claims being outlandish or wild," he said. "I see them being very, very calculated and very, very strategic. Big Tobacco is great at what they do."
What are electronic cigarettes?
Electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, are battery-operated products designed to deliver nicotine, flavor and other chemicals. They turn nicotine and other chemicals into a vapor, which is inhaled by the user.
Source: Food and Drug Administration