It's back to the future for e-cigarette ads, at least for now

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E-cigarettes are a booming business among smokers who want to light up indoors, smokers who want to quit and, as the CDC reported last month, among children.

And right now, e-cigarette makers have a tremendous amount of latitude in the U.S. to market those products as they choose, even on television, where traditional cigarette ads have been banned since 1971.

That's because the Food and Drug Administration has not yet determined if e-cigarettes, which deliver nicotine to the lungs through a battery-generated vapor, rather than via tobacco smoke, should be considered tobacco products — with all the regulation that designation entails. The agency is expected to make its determination as early as this month.

In the meantime, "the marketing that you're seeing in these cigarettes now, it's the wild west," Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California San Francisco, tells NPR's Melissa Block on All Things Considered. "They're they're using celebrities, movies, television — it's just like getting into a time machine."

Perhaps some readers will remember those heady, hazy days, when TV was filled with ads touting cigarettes' health benefits, as the center of a refreshing set break for John Wayne — even as part of a wholesome breakfast:

Not surprisingly, today's e-cigarette ads look a lot slicker than their midcentury tobacco cousins. Actors Stephen Dorff and Jenny McCarthy crank up the sex appeal in their advertisements for Blu eCigs, owned by Lorillard, which manufactures Kent and Newport tobacco cigarettes. At the bar, McCarthy says, "I can whip out my Blu, and not worry about scaring that special someone away."

And FIN electronic cigarette's national television spot goes for a stylish smash-up of vintage and modern, complete with a retro-looking diner waitress.

Andries Verleur, co-founder of VMR Products, which makes V2 Cigs, told Bloomberg News that the industry does expect the FDA will eventually clamp down on e-cigarette advertising.

As Mitchell Zeller, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Tobacco Products, told Shots, the jury's still out on the health effects of e-cigarettes. But, for now, as NJoy King put it in their TV ad that ran during the Superbowl in January, "the most amazing thing about this cigarette is, it isn't one."

At least, not yet.

You can hear more about the e-cigarette industry in Melissa Block's story on NPR's All Things Considered Monday.

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