WASHINGTON -- E-cigarette makers aim to hook youth on their products using music festivals, free samples and candy-flavored versions, Democratic lawmakers charge.
The findings, in a survey released Monday by members of Congress, should prod U.S. regulators to curb the industry, the lawmakers said. While e-cigarettes currently are unregulated, the Food and Drug Administration is working on a plan that would extend its tobacco oversight to the products.
Six of nine companies surveyed had sponsored or provided free samples at 348 events in the last two years, including the Bonnaroo and Coachella music festivals and Grand Prix races. Six companies including Green Smoke, acquired April 1 by Altria Group and Lorillard, also offer flavors such as cherry crush and vanilla dreams.
"These are the same tactics that were used by major cigarette manufacturers before they were banned," said Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, said. "Our findings demonstrate the FDA regulation of e-cigarettes is necessary to prevent manufacturers from targeting youth with aggressive marketing practices."
E-cigarettes are battery-powered tubes that simulate the effect of smoking by producing nicotine vapor. E-cigarette smokers are sometimes referred to as vapers. The FDA found there isn't enough information on the products to determine if they're less harmful than traditional cigarettes, according to a study published Monday in the journal Tobacco Control.
In October, the agency submitted a proposal to oversee the industry to the White House's Office of Management and Budget that authorizes all regulations. The proposal is still under review at OMB, according to the office's website.
"This report we're issuing today should be a prod for them to act," Waxman said.
The use of e-cigarettes by middle school and high school students in the U.S. doubled to 10 percent in 2012 from 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in September. The agency has also said e-cigarette-related calls to poison centers rose to 215 a month in February, compared with one a month in September 2010.
Waxman and Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois led the investigation. Durbin called e-cigarettes a gateway to smoking rather than a cessation tool as some studies have asserted.
The congressional report calls on the FDA to assert its authority over e-cigarettes and companies to immediately prevent the sale of the products to anyone younger than 18 and refrain from television and radio advertising. The FDA should ban flavored e-cigarettes that appeal to youth and companies should stop selling them as well, the report said.
Altria has expressed support for FDA regulation, David Sutton, a spokesman for the Richmond, Va.-based company, said.
"Obviously, we think that the agency should include an appropriate set of marketing regulations," Sutton said. "Those regulations should allow the companies to communicate to adult vapers."
Sutton declined to specify the type of marketing regulation the FDA should impose.
NJOY "has long supported sensible regulations," Whit Clay, a spokesman for the company at Sloane & Co., said.
Reynolds American backs "strengthening and updating state youth tobacco control laws to prohibit youth purchase" of tobacco products, Jane Seccombe, a spokeswoman for the Winston Salem, N.C.-based company said.
Bloomberg Industries estimates global e-cigarette sales may reach $7.5 billion in 2015, compared with $3.5 billion last year. The sales projection almost cuts in half an October estimate of $14 billion in 2015 sales based in part on expected advertising restrictions.
Six e-cigarette companies spent $59 million in 2013 to market their products, double the amount spent the year before. Seven of the manufacturers including NJOY and Reynolds have used radio or television advertisements, some featuring celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy. Seven companies also used social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to market their products.
Twenty-eight states have prohibited the sale of e- cigarettes to minors while most companies had some type of restriction on youth sales.
"Given the varied scope and company oversight of these policies, their effectiveness at restricting sales to minors is unclear," according to the congressional report.