A blog post by Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos this week raised the issue of e-liquid labels that may be perceived by regulators or legislators as being “marketed to youth,” or appealing to youth, or somehow being offensive because they’re colorful or have cartoon characters.
I wonder if there is anyone who thinks that the use of cartoons and funny graphics and the names of these products is not going to be perceived as appealing, and an attempt to actively promote the products, to youth. In my opinion, this is absolutely unacceptable and a clear indication of irresponsible behavior and marketing tactics. Even if there is no such genuine intention, none will be convinced. This is irresponsible behavior not only from the producers, but also from the retailers who sell these products and from the vapers who buy these products. Besides the regulators, who will do their job, the responsible part of the e-cigarette industry must immediately target and expel these members, while retailers should request the removal of such labels and packaging design or deny getting such products for retail.
It’s not a new complaint. Many people I respect in the vaping industry, and many thoughtful observers like Dr. Farsalinos, share this opinion. The question is, do regulators and other skeptical or openly hostile observers really care about the labels on e-liquid?
When our opponents — and by opponents, I mean organizations that want vaping dead — complain about “marketing to youth,” they’re complaining about flavors, and they try to link the flavors to the tobacco industry. If they have to lie to make their points, they’ll cheerfully do that too.
Should adults laugh at cartoons?
When the FDA’s deeming regulations were announced, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids complained that, “the rule announced today falls short in protecting kids from e-cigarettes. It does nothing to restrict the irresponsible marketing of e-cigarettes or the use of sweet e-cigarette flavors such as gummy bear and cotton candy, despite the FDA’s own data showing that flavors play a major role in the skyrocketing youth use of e-cigarettes.” They don’t object to the labels, folks. They object to our very existence.
Is it irresponsible to use funny graphics on bottles? Or is it just a display of a young and irreverent sensibility that some people will never appreciate? I asked Amelia Howard, who’s thought a lot about this. Howard is a sociologist at the University of Waterloo (Ontario) who studies the vape industry and also the political struggles we’re seemingly always going through.
“I think that this cartoon aesthetic in vape needs to be considered in terms of wider current cultural consumption patterns of adults,” she told me. “Think about ‘nerd culture,’ 80’s and 90’s nostalgia, and animated shows that deal with undeniably ‘grown-up’ subjects like Rick and Morty or BoJack Horseman.”
“If the goal is to transform the discourse on vaping by calling attention to the importance of pleasure and consumer choice — which many advocates are trying to do — is energy well spent fretting over where to draw the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate cultural preferences for label art?” she asked.
Who gets to be the pleasure police?
It’s a good point. There are many public health people who think vaping is just fine — as long as it’s boring, bland and invisible. Is that what we’re fighting for? Who gets to decide which labels are acceptable and which aren’t? Who will be the pleasure police?
“In America, where the regulatory framework will wipe out every product on the market that the independent industry makes, I’m not so sure ‘toning it down’ is going to achieve anything,” says Amelia Howard. “And from a social movements standpoint, it could be counterproductive if it undermines some of the principles vapers are advocating for.”
What principles are we advocating for? Is there a place for stupid jokes in vaping culture? Could we become so obsessed with avoiding “childish” images that we forget to laugh at ourselves?
“One of the things that makes vaping interesting to study is the powerful role that humor has played in resisting rather extreme attempts at social control from adversaries,” says Howard. “While I do empathize with the frustration of people doing serious work to save the industry from an apocalypse, I’d hate to see vaping lose its irony.”
There are all kinds of tasteless e-juice labels. I would never buy ‘em. Maybe you do. But they’re not the reason we’re fighting the FDA and the anti-nicotine horde. If every e-liquid came in a brown bottle with black-and-white lettering, we’d still be accused of “marketing to children.” The people accusing us don’t care about protecting children anyway. They just want us gone.
What do you think? Take our poll or sound off in the comments section.