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Child-Friendly E-Liquid Labels – Do They Harm the Industry?

Whether it’s re-appropriating trademarks, simply using juvenile graphics or a combination of the two, what you put on your e-liquid label dictates the sort of attention it will attract. Perhaps the “don’t judge a book by its cover” advice carries over to e-liquid too, at least for the consumer, but the big difference is that there aren’t big organizations with a vested interest in scrutinizing covers of books.

On the other hand, any indication that e-liquid companies are marketing to children will be pounced on by hungry, prohibitionist jackals looking for any excuse to come down hard on the technology.

The question is, do e-liquid labels featuring cartoonish characters or stealing the names of kid-friendly treats harm the industry, or will it make no difference what we do?

E-Liquids Marketing to Children: A Primer

The basic concern about e-liquids marketing to children is summed up by the frequently-repeated claim that flavors like bubblegum and cotton candy lure otherwise non-smoking youths into vaping, and then they’ll (for some reason) progress to smoking cigarettes. This concern is ultimately unfounded, but the CDC data on youth vaping is invariably trotted out as if it supports the notion. From 2011 to 2014, past-month vaping in high school students went up from 1.5 to 13.4 percent, and for middle school students it went from 0.6 to 3.9 percent.

On the face of it, the theory seems (relatively) plausible and the increase in youth vaping, when presented in this fashion, looks like it might be a concern. However, this isn’t the whole picture: alongside the increases in vaping, past-month smoking in high school students fell from 15.8 to 9.2 percent, and for middle school students it fell from 4.3 to 2.5 percent. In 2013, just 0.9 percent of never-smoking youth had ever tried e-cigs, and all evidence indicates that almost all regular users are smokers. Finally, evidence also indicates that the available flavors – the cornerstone of the theory – don’t appeal to non-smoking youth and that the “gateway” to smoking doesn’t really occur. Without putting too fine a point on it, current evidence strongly suggests that the “concern” about youth vaping is complete and utter bunk.

The only thing that is genuine about it is that the argument will continue to be made, and people do take it seriously. This makes sense, because if it really was happening, then it could make vaping a bad thing for society overall. The fact is that the data doesn’t support the conclusion will in no way stop groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Lung Association and many others from claiming that it’s true.

E-Liquid Labels (That Could be Accused of) Appealing to Youth

This is why companies using cartoon images or logos pretty much stolen from cereals, snacks and candies are a bigger deal than they should be. One thing we’ve never seen any genuine indication of from the e-cigarette industry is a desire to sell to children: there is a more than big enough potential market in the approximately one billion smokers around the world and no evidence, no leaked emails, basically nothing at all suggests that companies are attempting to branch out into marketing to non-smoking youths. But, if you’re inclined to make that argument (for whatever reason), then one piece of tenuous “evidence” you can find is in labels (or flavors) that look like they might be intended to appeal to children.

And it’s fairly hard to defend why you’d have such a label. You can say that you’re making reference to Fruit Loops or Skittles on your e-liquid label out of “nostalgia” or just for fun, but that argument will undoubtedly appear very weak when the evidence described above is being presented as if it’s evidence of a new epidemic of youth nicotine addiction. If you’re really unlucky, people will compare you to a Big Tobacco executive of the past, trying to conceal your true motive of creating a new generation of nicotine addicts.

This is ultimately why there has been a recent trend towards removing such labels (although threats of legal action related to trademark infringement have had a role to play too), and even though this wouldn’t be a concern in an ideal world, it’s hard to see the change as anything but positive. There is really no need to market your e-liquid in a way that could be misconstrued as trying to appeal to teens or kids; there are plenty of other ways to present your product that can’t be interpreted in such a fashion. It doesn’t matter if the concerns are valid or not; it’s a case of painting the industry in the most positive light. We are responsible, and we do not intend to addict non-smoking kids to nicotine, so we shouldn’t do anything that might make others think of us that way, as an industry.

Will it Even Matter?

The only problem is that it probably won’t make a difference anyway. To the people making these claims, the difference between doing so in the absence of evidence and continuing to do so despite evidence to the contrary is depressingly small. The human mind’s fascinating ability to contort contrary facts into a pre-existing viewpoint will continue to work its wonders, and we shouldn’t even be surprised if such moves are interpreted as an admission of guilt, as if the companies have been “caught out” rather than simply taking a precautionary step to avoid unfounded criticism.

The worst thing is that even if the people making such claims accepted the move as a show of good faith, something else – flavors, most likely – would be used as a justification to continue making the claim. The attacks on vaping are not based on a rational assessment of the facts; they’re based on an underlying opposition that exists independently of the facts.

Conclusion – Should Companies Pull Child-Friendly Labels?

Even though making this move won’t entirely stop claims that e-liquid companies are attempting to appeal to youth, changing any labels that appear as though they appeal to youth is still a good idea, on balance. When trademark issues come into it, this answer is obvious, but even for simple non-infringing cartoon labels, removing them indicates (at least to any unbiased observer) that the industry is responsible and that we are capable of behaving in the interests of public health without being mandated to. It might not stop the most zealous of critics, but it will both make it harder for them to state their case and help to convince anybody with a less extreme view that the “concern” isn’t really justified.

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