The stories began popping up around the end of August: a mysterious illness attacking people’s lungs.
The devices have existed in some form since the early 2000s, with brands like NJOY leading the way. Initially ushered in as an adult-focused alternative to traditional smoking, they quickly achieved broad distribution. As they became more popular, companies offered custom rigs for vaping, capable of more power than the original over the counter e-cigs. Along with the custom hardware came the ability for users to choose their own oils, which were offered in a variety of flavors.
All the while, the FDA allowed the industry to grow, essentially unchecked because it was viewed as safer than cigarettes. You have undoubtedly seen an explosion of vaping stores in your community, regardless of your location within the U.S. Likewise, the FCC allowed a lot to pass as well. Brands like Blu and Juul have been running ads on mass media and using tricks the tobacco brands were banned from trying decades ago like celebrities, humor, fake warning labels.
All of this was allowed, while some vaping oil companies began selling new flavors. With names like Razzleberry, Gummy Bear and Trix, they began to attract younger consumers. Oil was nicknamed “juice.” But it still didn’t attract the FDA, which had already banned these flavors from traditional cigarettes in 2009, for fear they would do exactly that.
The deaths and illnesses associated with vaping and e-cigarettes caught the media’s attention. Headlines like “CDC Says Almost All Vaping Illness Patients End Up Hospitalized,” and “Scientists Chase Cause of Mysterious Vaping Illness as Death Toll Rises” reframed the entire industry and finally caught the FDA’s attention. While tracking the cause or source of the illness afflicting vape users, they are making bold claims about regulation. Calls came for the FCC to implement controls on advertising for hardware and oils. When it comes to regulation, there is rarely time to act, but always the ability to overreact. If the response is anything like the restrictions on traditional cigarettes, the entire industry will be forced from mass media channels.
In the late 1980s, the Parents Music Resource Center formed to put guidelines in place on music to protect teens. Even if you’ve never heard of the PMRC, you have seen their legacy, the Parental Advisory label. For more than a decade, the labels were slapped on every type of mass entertainment, affecting artists producing anything nearing edgy.
Thirty years later, the PMRC labeling campaign looks downright quaint. The PMRC failed to sanitize pop culture, but in the short term, the organization played an outsized role in what was happening, shaping art, careers and financial outcomes. Could FDA and FCC action on vaping spillover to other categories?
Alcoholic beverages, pushing into more novel delivery mechanisms, should take note. Brands like White Claw and Truly have quickly developed cult-like followings for their lightly flavored alcoholic seltzers and waters. Sensing the trend, Four Loko is launching a high alcohol version into the category. What could go wrong?
The flavors of these drinks are more palatable to non-drinkers—and children. The design is clean and uses fruit cues, which could be attractive or confusing to young people. It’s highly unlikely the FDA will put broad bans in place for alcohol (that didn’t go so well last time), but singling out individual bad actors or isolated categories is a possibility.
Legal gambling is coming via state laws. With innovations in smartphones, prop betting and real-time data, there are bound to be unintended outcomes and consequences for millions of Americans and trillions of dollars. While the Supreme Court allowed the states to decide independently whether to allow betting and reap the tax revenue, the FCC could set boundaries for advertising as they’ve already done with once (and soon-to-be again) fantasy betting giants Draft Kings and FanDuel. If you’ve ever watched kids play Fortnite, Minecraft or Roblox for hours on end, you know how easy getting pulled into gaming can be.
The war on sugar has been raging in the media for about a decade. Soda and sweets companies have already been dealing with changing health perceptions of sugar consumption. With the FDA and FCC spurred to action on e-cigarettes with a renewed focus on the potential harm to young people, would brands like Pepsi, Hershey and cereal brands be the next to feel another challenging round of restrictions to ingredients, labeling and advertising?