Does it really matter what e-juice labels look like?

A recent blog by Dr. Farsalinos raised some old questions about e-liquid marketing

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tasteless e-juice label

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?

tasteless e-juice labeling

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.

Who gets to decide which labels are acceptable and which aren’t?

“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?

pleasure police vaping

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.”

"I’d hate to see vaping lose its irony."

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.

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Jim McDonald
I spend most of my time studying the regulatory, legislative and scientific challenges to vaping, advocating for our right to exist, and talking with others who do the same. Consider me a source for information, and feel free to agree or disagree with anything I say. I love good coffee and sweet Michigan cherries. My childhood hero was Gordie Howe.
  • Brian Coe

    I’ll go first then, on the whole I disagree with this blog, it misses the point and doesn’t address copyright infringement, it doesn’t mention anything about the fraudulent packaging even though it’s in the bloggers main picture showing ” Pokemon eliquid” it also doesn’t grasp the full scale of what could be a disaster for the vaping industry, you have Tobacco Free kids in America as stated using the kids argument at every level and granted even if the industry was as clean as a whistle tomorrow they still probably would still want us gone for their agenda based reasons, so is that an excuse for us to not care about what packaging looks like or whom it might be perceived to be appealing to ? I personally don’t care what Tobacco Free Kids thinks or anyone else, we as an industry and as advocates, consumers need to grow up and be more responsible in looking after this industry especially when under the microscope, I certainly don’t want flavours banned in the UK , the Welsh government does and the Scottish, you think this is helping ? Think again.

    • amelia

      For the record: I was not saying I endorse companies breaking the law (nor do I think Jim is, but he can speak for himself). The question I was asked was specifically whether I agree with the position that companies who have (legal) but arguably “childish packaging” should be condemned expelled, and if childish looking packaging is the most serious problem in the American industry, or more of a red-herring.

      • Brian Coe

        This was the question you were asked in this blog and although you don’t state you’re endorsing copyright / childish like packaging you didn’t exactly say you’re against it either, but questioned the seriousness of the issue on top of everything else, so do you approve of Pokejuice eliquid Amelia ? Is OK considering the industry is already accused of marketing to kids?

        “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?”

        No one has stated that this is the most serious problem currently but it could be if it all contributed to the banning of flavours,and seeing as this is mostly happening in the U.S , also you will know about Bill S5 in Canada which is going to be banning flavours because of the ” marketing to youth” aspect and guess where they’re referencing data from? yep Surgeon General and CDC so how serious is this ?

        I’m very much all for The pleasure principle of vaping but this isn’t that, it’s companies that don’t care about the industry just looking to make a quick buck.

        • Jim McDonald

          I work for Vaping360, but I didn’t choose the Pokejuice image. I interviewed Amelia for the article. She has no connection to Vaping360, and didn’t know what images would be used or what I would write (aside from including her quotes).

    • Jim McDonald

      I debated talking about trademark and copyright infringement, but since that’s strictly between the trademark owner and infringer, I didn’t see the point. Trademarks are stolen by people in every industry. I’ve never heard of regulators going after an industry because of that issue.

      CTFK have never mentioned labels that I know of. That’s why I mentioned that they specifically oppose *flavors*. There are lots of calls to ban flavors. As far as I know, there have been none to ban offensive labels.

      Do you have some specific guidelines on what should be allowed? Which labels do you want to be banned and what will the criteria be? Who decides?

      • Brian Coe

        Bill S5 in Canada if passed which it looks like it will, is going to have colour coded labelling and restrictions on labelling, also banning calling flavours that may attract kids like Candy or some desert name so yep already happening, have a listen to the latest hearing from a couple of days ago.

        My guidelines – keep the labelling and packaging adult as it is an adult product.

        What would yours be – do whatever you like ? even though in the current climate the likes of the Surgeon General, Tobacco free kids and Mitch Zeller are all using “kids” in their arguments at every turn.

        So i’ll ask you same as I did Amelia, do you approve of Pokejuice eliquid ? Is it OK considering the industry is already accused of marketing to kids?

        • Jim McDonald

          I don’t have an opinion on Pokejuice. I imagine if the Pokemon people are bothered, they’ll send a cease-and-desist letter and Pokejuice will disappear. That’s a legal matter between the trademark owner and the infringer.

          Who would you appoint to enforce the rules you want to impose? Who will write them? That is the point of the article. Who will make those decisions?

          • Brian Coe

            No opinion on pokejuice even though you used it in your blog? wow! and dancing around the question asked, says it all really.

          • Jim McDonald

            As I explained above, this is not “my blog.” It’s an article I wrote that was published on the website I work for. I didn’t choose the feature image; someone else did.

            You do understand that this whole site was not designed and written by me, right?

          • Brian Coe

            You stated this was your article on Facebook, it also states your name so it’s yours yes ? or did I miss something ? Your article should reflect packaging and not just labelling, as depicted in the image in the header and as this is what the issue is with mainly the outer IP infringement packaging.

          • Jim McDonald

            Brian, I guess you’ve never met a writer who works at a newspaper, magazine or website. It’s rare that the writer chooses the photos or writes the headline. But feel free to keep beating this dead horse until the vultures come and pick the bones.

          • Brian Coe

            I would therefore be a bit more choosy who I write for then, the question in the article that you never wrote the headline for ! Is the wrong question, it should be “what responsible approaches are going to be made to eliminate infringement childish style packaging for vaping products ” but I guess that wouldn’t be controversial or dramatic enough for vaping360.

            This will be my last ever article I share of there’s in our group if they don’t get their shit in order, in fact I deleted this one because it’s none productive.

            Have a nice day.

          • Jim McDonald

            You too!

  • Paul Wilson

    I don’t buy stuff like this. I don’t buy from ANY vape shop that I see stocking stuff like this. The battle to win people over to what vaping can achieve is hard enough, without some people helping to destroy all the good work that is being done to make vaping acceptable to the masses

  • Nate

    I think it’s very unresponsible and I don’t know anybody that buys any juice because of labels.

  • Les Savine

    From The The Food Imitations (Safety) Regulations 1989:

    4. No person shall supply, offer to supply, agree to supply, expose for supply or possess for supply any manufactured goods which are ordinarily intended for private use and are not food but which–

    (a)have a form, odour, colour, appearance, packaging, labelling, volume or size which is likely to cause persons, in particular, children to confuse them with food and in consequence to place them in their mouths or suck them or swallow them; and
    (b)where such action as is mentioned in (a) above is taken in relation to them, may cause death or personal injury.

    This covers some of the issues with e-liquid packaging.

    • Jim McDonald

      To be fair, I wasn’t trying to speak to British regulations. Dr. F’s blog was about American liquid makers.

      • Brian Coe

        To be fair other countries look at other countries data for models to use on legislation, for instance how many times during when last year Mark Drakeford quoted spurious studies from the U.S but ignored RCP and PHE ? never think of this as just U.S or UK, AU, this is global.

        • Jim McDonald

          Were offensive labels an issue in Wales? Not that I recall.

          • Brian Coe

            Yes they were.

  • Dragonmum

    What have “Young and irreverent sensibilities” and “Irony” got to do with vaping? We are adults capable of assessing a good flavour without requiring the aid of childish and mostly irrelevant cartoons. Do we not already have enough weapons aimed against us? Do we need to give them another stick to beat us with? These people are, in my opinion, totally irresponsible and I would never even consider purchasing their products.

    • Jim McDonald

      I wouldn’t either, but I also wouldn’t feel comfortable being the one who decides what other people buy. So you and I can vote with our dollars.

      • Brian Coe

        If consumers are buying the crappy packaged ejuice then they’re also part of the problem, but the problem starts with supplier, they should refuse to buy it, the consumers refuse and the manufacturers go away, because if they don’t this will become a far bigger issue and the industry will be f…d.

  • Brian Coe

    Eliquids don’t even need fancy labelling, case in point how many DIYers make their own for their own consumption and put it in a pokejuice box to make the experience better ? Iv’e been making my own tasty eliquid and mine goes in an cleaned out VG or PG bottle with a hand written sticky label on it, poured into a plain unicorn bottle with a sticky label on it, to want to have your juice in childish fraudulent packaging must mean there’s something lacking in your eliquid.

    • Lollylulubes

      I’m exactly the same with my DIY eliquid. We all say that people don’t smoke for the packaging, when public health are banging on about plain packaging and we don’t vape for the packaging either. What we look for is a good, appealing description and preferably, reviews of the eliquid and that’s what makes us buy. If I buy eliquid, it’s usually good quality blended. I couldn’t care less about the packaging and in fact would prefer basic to keep the price of the eliquid down.

  • Sheldon Cooper

    I agree that labeling something that has a childish appeal could be very problematic. I think e-juice companies need to be aware of the dangers that it could present. And yes this gives another arsenal to the government to put on huge restrictions regarding the marketing and labeling of said products.

    • Jim McDonald

      I think there is one kind of label that *is* dangerous: labels that make the product look like a kids drink. That could be dangerous.

      • Lollylulubes

        Well that’s exactly it – that’s the whole point! These IP infringement child-like cartoon labels ARE on eliquids, so, yes, they are all a potential danger if parents leave them lying around, because kids could think they are a drink for them. Most parents would be sensible enough not to and hopefully, they educate their kids never to touch, but they’re human, there’s always that one time, so best not to have these type of unnecessary labels at all! We’re striving to be a responsible industry, so lets keep it that way!

        • Jim McDonald

          Who will make the rules? That is the question. Saying it’s common sense isn’t an answer. Are you asking for government regulation? The companies who make irresponsible packages won’t respond to you or me, so what exactly are you suggesting? In the US, the government can only regulate speech if public safety is compromised. Most “offensive” labels aren’t dangerous.

          • Lollylulubes

            What you said above, is what I was agreeing with. If it’s got cartoons that kids associate with themselves all over it, it’s potentially dangerous. We’ve been self regulating up until now and it would be great if that continued wherever possible. We need vaping organisations to band together and email manufacturers and vendors. I’d rather not ask for government regulation because they’re apt to go too far, as we know only too well. However, it these manufacturers, wholesalers and vendors don’t stop this stupidity, that is what it will come down to; if not a total ban on flavours which is what many seem to be aiming for anyway. Bad branding just makes the job easier for them. We also have to publicise it enough that consumers see the reason and vote with their feet. That would soon concentrate a few minds. Other than that, I don’t know what the answer is. It makes me angry that so many are so apathetic to problems and just have an I’m alright Jack mentality.

          • Jim McDonald

            I agree that labels that *look like juice* are dangerous. I don’t think anything with a cartoon is dangerous, and I don’t think trademark infringement is an issue for anyone but the trademark owner and the infringer.

            I think this is mostly a non-issue, and it wastes the energy of people who could be writing letters to the editor, speaking at local council meetings, or recruiting help for real political battles. I don’t think vapers arguing with each other about labels is in any way useful to the cause.

            But I’m sure you disagree, and we’ll have to leave it at that. I used to think it was important. I now think I was wrong.

          • Lollylulubes

            I live in the UK which is much better placed than your dire Deeming Rules, Canada, those in other EU countries and draconian Australia but, globally, we face the same opponents, many of whom ferociously want to ban flavours in their entirety, because they say they are ‘marketed’ at kids. Though another lie, it’s one of their biggest arguments, against us. Obviously labels are a big part of marketing and as far as these opponents are concerned, these childish labels only serve to confirm their stance/fears and give them easy ammunition. I saw a video a few weeks ago (can’t remember where, sorry), when a committee member in one of the US states actually questioned a spokesperson for the vaping industry about such branding and held up a selection of products. It can’t really be argued against. If we want to win, we have to be squeaky clean and it’s as easy to use age appropriate labels as not. Just like you, I want the very best for us and not giving them such easy ammunition is part of that.

          • Brian Coe

            Well what’s your answer to it seeing as it’s your article, you must have given it some thought ? Iv’e already said that if wholesalers stop buying it from manufacturers then consumers can’t buy it and manufacturers won’t make it, either that or it will go down the root of prohibition on flavours like it already has done in various countries, Canada, European states, this will further their excuse to ban flavours because they’re looking to use the “youth” card all the time, now whether or not the packaging is marketed to kids, you’ll never convince the likes of the Surgeon General of anything else ever, so it’s up to us to act on it and not waste time questioning it.

  • Lollylulubes

    1). I believe it’s important to address Intellectual Property Rights in various blogs and for industry to make manufacturers, wholesalers and vendors aware that using another company’s branding is stealing and they could get themselves sued. It’s easy and less costly just to nick someone else’s designs, rather than think like a adult and lay out money for more sophisticated and age appropriate designs.

    2). More importantly, we have opponents wanting to ban flavourings in many places, using the excuse that we’re marketing to kids. It would not be difficult for them to find lots of this type of packaging and when the industry claims we’re not marketing to kids at various hearings, regulators will hold up this packaging and say, “Oh really?” We won’t have a leg to stand on.

    Various industry organisations can ask manufacturers, wholesalers and vendors to stop and consumers can be asked to vote with their feet, but I believe that will still leave the majority blissfully unaware of what they’re doing to us, not to mention the usual apathy. Many probably don’t even have a clue about the Deeming Rules yet.

    • Brian Coe

      100% in agreement, imagine every vape business turned out these IP infringement looking products? we’d be shut down yesterday, not only that, it’s not even creative, it’s lazy and just for making a quick buck, there’s 100s of businesses that could make more money if they wanted by doing the same, but they value being more professional and so that their business model can be helpful to all vapers and smokers looking to switch.

    • Jeremy

      If an e-juice was called Strawberry Shortcake and it came in an amber bottle with no graphics, and in only Helvietica font, it would STILL be as much of an issue.

      These “kiddie graphics” are a relatively new phenomenon in vaping. But, the ire and propaganda from our opponents on “kiddie flavors” (re: sweet and dessert flavors) was already in full swing.

      Issues with intellectual property is on the business. We are not consultants. That is the responsibility of the manufacturer and retailers. If they chose to make a bad business decision, that is up to them.

  • Asylumsix

    Currently the entire vaping industry is under a microscope, from big manufacturers to small mom and pop shops, it’s like the entire industry is in a court case all around the globe…

    If you were to go to court would you wear a wife beater with skank printed on it and act like a douche or would you dress respectable and speak properly so you can be taken serious?

    That’s how I see it.. I understand that for a decade we’ve been in the wild west but making laws, trying to get them overturned take is a bit more serious and putting your best foot forward is important…

  • Freddie

    I’m 63 and like having flavor options and enjoy colorful packaging. While I don’t typically buy liquids featuring cartoon characters, zombie guts or other themes are fine.