By Toni Clarke
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. senators heavily criticized the marketing practices of e-cigarette companies on Wednesday, saying their use of glamorous models, celebrities and cartoon characters attracts children and risks creating a new generation of nicotine addicts at a time when traditional smoking rates are declining.
The jury is still out on the value of e-cigarettes on public health over the long term. E-cigarette companies say their products are designed to help adult smokers quit. Public health advocates fear they could act as a gateway to traditional cigarettes, potentially undermining decades of effort to eradicate smoking.
The Food and Drug Administration has proposed regulating e-cigarettes, but it could be several years before the regulations go into effect. Moreover, the proposal, which would ban sales of e-cigarettes to people under the age of 18, would not ban advertising, flavored products or online sales.
In the meantime, the percentage of U.S. teens using e-cigarettes more than doubled between 2011 and 2012 and nearly 2 million have tried the products, federal data shows.
"The growth in youth awareness and use of e-cigarettes has coincided with a flood of recent e-cigarette marketing," said Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which held a hearing on the matter.
Rockefeller cited a recent report in the journal Pediatrics that found youth exposure to e-cigarette advertising on television increased 256 percent over the past two years. A report by the anti-tobacco American Legacy Foundation found that last year more than 14 million teens saw e-cigarette advertising on television, and 9.5 million saw print ads.
"While major e-cigarette companies reiterate that they target only adults, a large youth audience still appears to be getting their message loud and clear," Rockefeller said.
Jason Healy, president of blu eCigs, a subsidiary of tobacco giant Lorillard Inc, defended television advertising, saying it was needed to inform adult smokers of the alternatives.
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who as the state's former Attorney General sued the tobacco industry and helped shape a multi-billion dollar settlement, said the advertisements currently been shown have "a very eerie and haunting feel."
"We've seen this movie before," he said. "You are using the same tactics and ads used by Big Tobacco that proved so effective."
Craig Weiss, chief executive of the e-cigarette company NJoy, testified that "no minor should be using a nicotine-containing product of any kind" and said his company only targeted adults in its advertising.
He was challenged by Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who pointed to an ad featuring Robert Pattinson, star of the "Twilight" movies, and asked if Weiss really believed the handsome young star appealed to adults.
Weiss said the ad was legitimate since Pattinson "is an adult smoker."
"He is an adult in movies that appeal to kids," Klobuchar snapped back.
(Editing by Andrew Hay)