Senators question tobacco companies on e-cigarette ads during pandemic

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U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and U.S. Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) and Dianna DeGette (D-CO) are questioning tobacco companies on their use of social media advertising to market e-cigarettes to youths and adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Warren is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, while Krishnamoorthi is the Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy and DeGette is Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

In letters to British American Tobacco (BAT), Philip Morris International (PMI), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Congressmembers said the tobacco companies had have “chosen to exploit a global pandemic for marketing purposes.”

The Congressmembers said the subsidiaries of the companies used the public health emergency to promote their e-cigarette products. Citing research done by public health experts at Stanford, the Congressmembers said the companies produced over 300 COVID-themed e-cigarette advertisements, several of which offered things in short supply, like hand sanitizer, face masks, and toilet paper, as free gifts with the purchase of vaping products.

Others falsely claimed that vaping is not associated with an increased risk of contracting COVID-19, the legislators said. Additionally, they wrote, the companies appear to have specifically targeted underage users, placing the vast majority of their ads on Instagram and Twitter, a potential violation of federal law.

“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 Congressmembers asked both tobacco companies for copies of the company’s advertisements, a list of subsidiaries that distribute their products, internal documentation of the companies’ COVID-19 marketing strategies and communications with federal health officials regarding the content of these advertisements.

The lawmakers asked the FTC and FDA for a staff-level briefing and information on the agencies’ enforcement authority related to e-cigarette advertising and promotional activities.

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