Kicking the habit: Most large agencies swear off e-cigarette clients

Many firms' policies put little to no daylight between vaping and Big Tobacco.

Photo credit: Getty images

Under intense scrutiny from the federal government, the e-cigarette industry won’t be able to turn to much of the PR industry for help burnishing its image.

Many communications shops, including the world's top two by revenue, are vowing never to take up the vaping habit, treating the emerging industry with the same approach it’s applied to Big Tobacco in recent years. While vaping companies are trying to rebrand their products as smoking-cessation devices, most large PR agencies, especially those with a history of opposing tobacco, aren’t buying it. Others, with ties to vaping, have a different take. And a few with connections to tobacco don’t want to talk about e-cigarettes at all.

Many vaping opponents in PR are signees of the Quit Big Tobacco pledge, including Edelman, which decades ago worked on behalf of tobacco companies. Yet today, agency president and CEO Richard Edelman takes an emphatic public stance against smoking. In 2014, he publicly supported the decision by CVS to stop selling tobacco products in its stores.

Asked about vaping, he is just as adamant. "We will do neither vaping nor tobacco," Edelman says, via email. His view is that electronic cigarettes could easily lead people to smoking regular tobacco products.

"To me, this is one and the same," he adds. "Vaping is the on-ramp to tobacco, and the claims to the contrary are false and misleading. Kids get hooked on the habit via vaping. It is simply wrong."

Other large agencies have also kicked the habit and have policies pledging to stay tobacco-free.

"We’ve had a policy in place [against] tobacco since as far back as I know," said Golin CEO Matt Neale. "I’ve been here for 12 years, and since then, we’ve never worked for tobacco companies or on a tobacco product."

He adds that Golin had an opportunity to work on a "seven-figure opportunity in the vaping space," but when it and other e-cigarette work was presented to the Interpublic Group agency’s board, the executives turned it down. While Neale acknowledges there is a smoking-cessation aspect to vaping, warnings over addiction and uncertainty about the product led the board to vote "no."

The popularity of e-cigarettes has skyrocketed in recent years. Nearly 11 million adults in the U.S. vape, with more than half of that number under the age of 35, Reuters reported last year. The number of teens who vape has also reached record levels, according to studies. A report released this week linked teen vaping to violence and property theft.

As teen vaping has increased dramatically, e-cigarette companies have come under fire for their marketing, which critics say is designed to appeal to the youth market, as are the flavors. Those tactics are working, according to a spokesperson for the anti- tobacco and vaping initiative Quit Big Tobacco, who said they have fueled a nearly 80% rise in vaping among U.S. high school students between 2017 and 2018.

At least one vaping company, Juul, has pivoted its marketing strategy to emphasize its use as a tool to help consumers switch from traditional cigarettes. Its recent ads feature people middle-aged or older discussing how vaping helped them, according to a Juul tagline, "make the switch" from regular cigarettes.

Despite the repositioning, most large agencies that spoke with PRWeek are strongly in the no vaping camp. Mike Doyle, a partner at Ketchum and regional president for North America, says his agency, which works with the Truth anti-smoking initiative, will never support the product.

"We’re proud to call Truth a client, and from a Ketchum perspective, we are as committed to fighting vaping as we are with fighting cigarettes," he says.

Vaping is also a hard no for Weber Shandwick. "Weber Shandwick will not work on any e-cigarette products and has not worked on any in the past," says Kate Lowry, director of global corporate communications at the IPG firm, in a statement. "We also will not work for the tobacco industry or tobacco products as has been our long-standing policy."

PR agencies’ positions on vaping generally mirror their stances on tobacco. A spokesperson from Quit Big Tobacco says it has yet to run into a marketing services company that has sworn off tobacco but thinks vaping is acceptable.

"The tobacco industry is positioning these new products as a solution to a problem it has created and continues to perpetuate," the spokesperson says. "No industry is less deserving of the benefit of the doubt when it comes to protecting the public’s health, and in our experience, we’ve found that people are able to see past the smoke and mirrors."

Other large agencies, especially those with past or present ties to tobacco, wouldn’t comment on vaping. Hill+Knowlton Strategies founder John Hill helped the tobacco industry strategize a response in 1953 to concerns about tobacco’s health effects, according to the Los Angeles Times. H+K representatives did not return requests for comment about its vaping policy.

Before the creation of BCW, Burson-Marsteller did not accept tobacco work because of a potential conflict of interest with pharma clients. However, BCW extended its work with Philip Morris International last year.

BCW also did not return requests for comment about its policy on e-cigarette clients. A spokesperson for FleishmanHillard, the fourth-largest agency in the world, said, "We don't do tobacco or vaping." 

Other firms have a different take on vaping. Havas Formula, for instance, helped to launch Juul.

"All of the tobacco companies are using [e-cigarettes] as a transformational product for moving people over from cigarette smoking into a vaping approach," says Michael Olguin, president and CEO of Havas Formula. "We actually launched Juul about six or seven years ago, and they were for all intents and purposes a tech startup."

Olguin says that Juul stopped working with Havas Formula about three years ago after the firm switched marketing approaches. He acknowledges that some of the tactics vaping companies have used, like the flavors, target younger consumers.

"Their flavors are not the kind of favors an adult would ever smoke," he says. "So it’s a tough argument to make that you’re not targeting teens."

A Juul representative declined comment.

Despite no longer working with Juul, Olguin is more libertarian about e-cigarettes than many of his agency leader peers.

"If someone wants to do something that’s not illegal, that’s up to them," he says.

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