DOJ Clears the Air on E-Cigarette Ads

Scott R. Flick

Posted September 18, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

One of the perennial challenges of being a broadcaster is determining what you can air, when you can air it, and how it must be aired without incurring the wrath of the federal government. While the FCC tends to be the federal agency most commonly encountered on content issues, various other government agencies create additional layers of complexity, with the Department of Justice, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Trade Commission all having an interest in what is aired, particularly where it involves advertising. As new products become available and are marketed, the government struggles to keep up, sometimes leaving the media in the lurch as to whether a particular ad is "safe" for airing.

For that reason, broadcasters have stepped carefully with regard to advertisements for medical marijuana (which I've discussed previously here), tobacco products, and other items of federal concern. While enforcement encounters with the FCC can be unpleasant, encounters with the DOJ can be downright incarcerating. Fortunately, broadcasters' encounters with the DOJ are rare, and usually involve the DOJ bringing a court action to enforce collection of an FCC-imposed fine. However, that also means the body of DOJ precedent on substantive content issues can be pretty thin, leaving broadcasters guessing as to what can and cannot be aired.

One area where the DOJ has definitely had a broad role to play is in the advertising of tobacco products. From the original ban on broadcast cigarette advertising implemented in 1971 to its later expansion to little cigars (1973) and smokeless tobacco (1986), the DOJ is the entity charged with enforcing the ban on most types of tobacco broadcast advertising. While a ban on tobacco advertising might seem straightforward, complying with it can be fairly complex, resulting in a number of DOJ decisions regarding what can be said in advertising for tobacco shops and tobacco products not affected by the ad ban. Our recently updated Pillsbury Advisory on tobacco advertising restrictions is a good place to learn more about those nuances.

One new product that continues to garner attention (and confusion) is e-cigarettes, which are battery-powered devices designed to imitate the look and feel of a cigarette, but which deliver nicotine vapor rather than tobacco smoke to the lungs. While e-cigarettes have become fairly common, only limited research has been done on their health effects, and many countries have now regulated them in a variety of ways.

In the U.S., the FDA has expressed serious concerns about the manufacturing and marketing of e-cigarettes, but has not yet been successful in implementing restrictions on e-cigarette sales. However, there have been indications the FDA will move as early as next month to launch a rulemaking to implement restrictions on e-cigarette sales. While it is likely that any ultimate FDA rules will prohibit the marketing of e-cigarettes to minors, it is at this point unknown whether the FDA might try to impose broader restrictions on advertising, and whether such restrictions would stand up in court. What is known is that rulemakings at federal agencies take time, so it will likely be a while before any new FDA rules could be implemented.

That pretty much leaves the question of whether e-cigarettes can currently be advertised up to the DOJ. Given the DOJ's dim view under existing tobacco ad restrictions of any ad that even mentions the word "cigarette", many assumed that the DOJ would take a similar view of e-cigarette advertising. However, because the DOJ has not publicly moved to take action against a growing number of e-cigarette ads, broadcasters have so far been left wondering where the government stands on the issue.

We now know the answer to that question. My Pillsbury colleague Paul Cicelski has obtained clarification from the Department of Justice in the form of a letter stating the DOJ's position on e-cigarette advertising. The letter notes that the ad ban covers "any roll of tobacco" wrapped in paper, tobacco, or any other substance likely to be purchased by consumers as a "cigarette". It proceeds to note that while e-cigarettes are often manufactured to look like conventional cigarettes, they do not contain a "roll of tobacco" and therefore are not subject to the federal ban on cigarette ads.

So does that mean the floodgates are open on e-cigarette ads? Not quite. First, the DOJ letter indicates that it reflects the views of the Consumer Protection Branch of the DOJ and not "any other governmental office, agency or department," specifically noting that the Federal Trade Commission has authority over e-cigarette ads that are deceptive, such as those that make health claims without adequate scientific support. Similarly, many states have grown concerned about e-cigarettes and have introduced legislation to restrict their use and advertising. As a result, in addition to being wary of health claims in ads like "e-cigarettes will help you stop smoking", broadcasters should check the laws of their state for any state-based limitations on e-cigarette advertising. Finally, as noted above, the FDA is clearly interested in this area, and likely will have something to say about e-cigarette regulation once it concludes its soon-to-be-launched e-cigarette proceeding.

Fortunately, the FTC and FDA have traditionally focused their enforcement efforts on advertisers rather than on the media entities carrying the ads, so even if e-cigarette regulations are ultimately adopted, those regulations are unlikely to principally target broadcasters for merely running the ads. As a result, the DOJ's position on e-cigarettes goes a long way toward resolving a significant source of confusion and angst for many broadcasters while opening up an additional avenue for broadcast ad dollars.

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