Tobacco Companies Criticized For Lax Age-Verification On E-Cigarette Websites

Putting an age-verification gate on an adults-only website is arguably as helpful in keeping curious kids away as putting a cardboard cutout of a burly bouncer outside of a nightclub. But if a tobacco company is going to have a strict age-block on its cigarette site, shouldn’t its e-cigarette website have the same restrictions?

That was the question asked by researchers from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, and the Children’s National Medical Center in D.C. for a report published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The report looked at the websites for more than a dozen e-cigarette brands, including several made by large tobacco companies, like Altria’s MarkTen, Reynolds American’s Vuse, and Blu by Imperial Tobacco.

They note that while these companies’ cigarette brands use largely unbranded age gates requiring users to put in their full date of birth — and in some cases actually register with the site — before being publicly accessible, their accompanying e-cig sites usually just require the visitor to click a box.

A few examples:

KOOL VS. BLU
The front page of the site for Imperial’s Kool cigarettes looks like some sort of municipal employee login from 1995:
KoolGrab

But accessing the company’s Blu site only requires a click to pretend you’re of age, and even then you can see Blu marketing content clearly in the background:
blugrab

MARLBORO VS. MARKTEN
Similarly, the site for Altria’s Marlboro requires a login and a full date of birth, and contains no logos or branding (other than the Marlboro name):
marlboro

While its MarkTen site has the full branding on the simple click-ready age gate:
markten

CAMEL VS. VUSE

Reynolds American pushes the limits in marketing for both cigarettes and e-cigs. Its Camel site has a registration-required front page, but includes the famous Camel logo and is significantly more visually appealing than the above tobacco site examples:

camelgrab

But visiting Reynolds’ site for Vuse doesn’t even have an initial age gate. One can clearly see the products and even read the full Vuse FAQ. It’s only until you try to get further into the site’s content that you hit a login requirement:

vuse1

vuse2

vuseregister

The Food and Drug Administration does not yet have full regulatory authority over e-cigarettes, meaning it can’t require these companies to put stringent age gates on their websites. However, the researchers behind this report contend that tobacco producers who also sell e-cig products should not have a different standard for marketing cigarettes than they do for e-cigarettes.

“Regardless of government regulation, tobacco companies ought to consistently apply their principles of corporate social responsibility across all products, not just cigarettes,” concludes the report.

Critics of e-cigs have raised concerns that the products are being marketed toward younger audiences. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that during a three-year period in which annual e-cig ad spending rose from $6.4 million to $115 million the percentage of middle school students who tried the products quadrupled while their use by high school students increased by more than six times.