Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Democratic colleagues in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee lambasted the presidents of two major e-cigarette companies, blu eCigs (which is owned by the tobacco company Lorillard) and NJoy, for their advertising practices in a hearing Wednesday.
"I'm ashamed of you," Rockefeller, the panel's chairman, told the company presidents. "I don't know how you sleep at night; I don't know how you get out of bed in the morning but for the green of dollars."
The hearing addressed the advertising of e-cigarettes, devices which vaporize nicotine, flavoring and additives (usually distilled water and propylene glycol) into a mist, which is inhaled. E-cigarette liquid does not contain tobacco or many of the other noxious chemicals contained in combustible cigarettes.
Democrats claimed e-cigarette companies are deliberately marketing their products to minors, leaving them vulnerable to the potential harmful effects of nicotine and the desire to graduate to real cigarettes.
The executives insisted that youth exposure to their advertisements is incidental to reaching their target audience: the nation's 40 million adult smokers, whose health stands to improve if they replace combustible cigarettes with e-cigs.
The e-cigarette market, already a billion-dollar business, has boomed in the last few years. One study, published Monday in the journal Tobacco Control, found that an average of 10 new brands enter the market each month. The study found more than 7,700 e-cigarette flavors available online.
As overall use has skyrocketed, so has use among minors. According to a March study in JAMA Pediatrics, e-cigarette use among teens increased between 2011 and 2012 from 1.5 percent to 2.8 percent -- doubling over one year, the senators note ominously. The comparable figure for combustible cigarette use among teens is 15.7 percent.
The senators claim that e-cigarette flavors like "cherry crush" and "berry blast" are deliberately created to entice minors. They further accuse e-cigarette companies of targeting their advertising toward youth, noting a marked increase in youth exposure to e-cigarette advertising in recent years (although this may be explained by the overall growth in the e-cigarette market, which entails growth in advertising).
"You've taken Big Tobacco's playbook and applied it to a non-combustive nicotine delivery tool," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., charged. "It's like Groundhog Day."
blu president Jason Healy, who claims e-cigarettes helped him reduce consumption of combustible cigarettes from 1.5 packs per day (210 cigarettes per week) to five cigarettes per week, said they are a valuable tool in nicotine replacement therapy.
"E-cigs are the most significant tobacco cessation tool yet created," Healy said.
"Our company's mission is to make combustible cigarettes obsolete," NJoy president Craig Weiss added.
The one Republican senator who spoke, John Thune of South Dakota, cautioned his colleagues against dismissing a technology which may be an effective smoking cessation tool.
So who is right? That depends on the question.
It seems indisputable that e-cigarette companies are employing advertisements that appeal to minors. Ads that employ cartoons (blu) and popular celebrities like Robert Pattinson (NJoy) are likely to draw in minors, even as they draw in young smokers of legal age.
But on the other hand, researchers at University College London found earlier this year that smokers were 60 percent more likely to quit smoking when using e-cigarettes than when using over-the-counter nicotine patches or willpower ("going cold turkey"). The study was funded by Cancer Research UK for the journal Addiction.
"E-cigarettes could substantially improve public health because of their widespread appeal and the huge health gains associated with stopping smoking," Robert West, UCL professor of epidemiology and public health, said.
No study has yet looked into the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes, but the UCL researchers are confident they do not pose the health risks of combustible cigarettes.
With these findings in mind, what is the sensible way forward for lawmakers?
Most states ban e-cigarette sales to minors, and another half dozen are working on legislation to that effect — moves that could limit the ability of minors to get access to them.
But imposing an advertising blackout on e-cigarettes will only create the unfair impression they are as deadly as combustible cigarettes. More importantly, advertising restrictions will keep current smokers in the dark about a helpful tool. They will continue to smoke combustible cigarettes, with predictable outcomes.