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State launches ad campaign against e-cigarettes

MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 20:  Julia Boyle enjoys an electronic cigarette at the Vapor Shark store on February 20, 2014 in Miami, Florida. As the popularity of E- cigarettes continue to grow, leading U.S. tobacco companies such as Altria Group Inc. the maker of Marlboro cigarettes are annoucing plans to launch their own e-cigarettes as they start to pose a small but growing competitive threat to traditional smokes.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
On Monday, state public health officials launched an ad campaign warning Californians about what it characterizes as the dangers of e-cigarette use.

On Monday the California Department of Public Health stepped up its campaign against electronic cigarettes with a pair of television ads accusing the e-cigarette industry of misleading the public about the safety of its products.

The 30-second spots, which will air statewide through June, are part of a broader campaign that officials say will also include ads on billboards, radio and online.

"Our advertising campaign is telling the public to ‘wake up’ to the fact that these are highly addictive products being mass marketed," Dr. Karen Smith, director of the state Department of Public Health, said in a statement.

The ad blitz follows a report that the department issued in January declaring e-cigarettes a health threat, especially to children. It said they emit cancer-causing chemicals and warned that unless tightly regulated, the devices could lead to new generations of young people getting addicted to nicotine.

E-cigarettes, sometimes called vaping pens, heat liquid nicotine to produce a vapor that is inhaled. The devices' manufacturers insist their products are safer than tobacco cigarettes and help people quit smoking. There has been a lot of research on e-cigarettes, but as yet there is no definitive science on their effectiveness as a tool for quitting, or on their health impact. 

In the meantime, public health officials say growing numbers of teenagers are trying e-cigarettes, enticed by the many fruit and candy-flavored varieties available, and they fear that could lead teens to become tobacco smokers.

That’s the gist of one of the TV ads that debuted Monday. It flashes images of candy-flavored vaping pens and of teenagers puffing on them. The song "Lollipop," popularized by the 50s group The Chordettes, plays in the background.

"Meet the next generation cigarette for the next generation to be hooked by tobacco," the ad says.

And in the second ad, this message: "From the people who brought you lung cancer: e-cigarettes. A new way to inhale toxic chemicals with a drug as addictive as heroin."

The e-cigarette industry denounced the ads. Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, called them "untruthful."

He accused health officials of trying to scare people away from something that could help them quit smoking.

"It is sending the message to adult smokers all throughout California that if they can’t quit with products like the gum patch or lozenge, well, they might as well just continue smoking."

And he suggested that the Department of Public Health had a financial incentive for demonizing e-cigarettes.

"It could be that they are worried about their tobacco tax dollars," he said.

But in her statement, Public Health director Karen Smith said curbing e-cigarette use is a critical part of the effort to prevent tobacco use.

"California has been a world leader in tobacco use prevention and cessation since 1990, with one of the lowest youth and adult smoking rates in the nation," she said. "The aggressive marketing and escalating use of e-cigarettes threatens to erode that progress."

Several U.S. cities have already begun regulating e-cigarette use. Los Angeles and Long Beach are among those that have banned their use in public places. And a bill currently in the state legislature would expand a similar ban statewide.