Should Juul Ads Go the Way of the Marlboro Man, Regulator Asks

(Bloomberg) -- The Marlboro Man’s been off TV screens in the U.S. for decades, so why not restrict ads for e-cigarettes like those made by Juul Labs Inc.?

That’s a comparison floated by Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the Federal Communications Commission. Her criticism adds to pressure on Silicon Valley darling Juul and its investor, tobacco giant Altria Group Inc., after the head of the Food and Drug Administration signaled curbs are imminent.

“The president’s own FDA commissioner has called what’s happening with vaping a public health crisis,” Rosenworcel said at a Washington news conference Thursday. She said agencies should “come together, look at what laws are on their books, and identify if there are things we can do.”

Youth adoption of e-cigarettes has surged, provoking calls for action from parents, public-health advocates and lawmakers.

Rosenworcel on Thursday stopped short of calling for a ban on vaping ads.

A day earlier she posted a tweet about e-cigarette ads, writing that “the @FCC can help put a stop to this, and I think it should.”

San Francisco-based Juul in December sold a 35 percent stake to Altria in a $12.8 billion deal that turns the e-cigarette maker into one of Silicon Valley’s most valuable closely held companies.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb on Feb. 8 wrote to both companies and asked to talk with them about “public statements that seem inconsistent” with vows they made to combat nicotine use by minors.

Gottlieb also said he expects to issue draft rules restricting sales of most flavored e-cigarette products. Many vaping pods come in fruit or candy flavors. Some have packaging resembling juice boxes or whip cream.

A law signed by President Richard Nixon pushed cigarette ads, including those for the rugged cowboy figure touting Marlboro brand cigarettes, off the air in 1971.

But now, “cigarette advertisers are gasping for new breath on our public airwaves,” Rosenworcel said in an opinion piece published Wednesday in USA Today. “Today, makers of their modern equivalent — electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes — are free to market their products where they choose, even on television and radio.”

Rosenworcel is a member of the FCC’s Democratic minority, and her ideas may not take among the majority controlling the agency’s agenda.

“Censoring lawful speech based on its content?” Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said in a tweet. “I’m with the First Amendment. I’m a no.”

Since launching in 2015, Juul has been a runaway success, attracting the ire of parents and regulators who say the company’s devices hook teenagers. The startup has positioned itself as a technology company on a mission to help addicted smokers quit tar-burning cigarettes.

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