One of Sunday's most controversial Super Bowl ads came with the message "Friends don't let friends smoke." Bizarrely, it's organized anti-smokers in the public-health establishment who want the commercial banned.
The line comes in an ad for the NJOY King, an electronic cigarette produced by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based NJOY. The commercial shows people helping each other in situations like moving a couch up a flight of stairs or helping a friend in a bar fight. Then one man starts to light up a cigarette, only for his friend to offer him an NJOY King.
For most people, the message is clear: If someone close to you smokes cigarettes, try recommending they switch to a smoke-free alternative.
Those who care about public health should be rejoicing that the private sector is not only placing anti-smoking ads on the country's largest stage, but that the ad actually offers smokers an appealing alternative to smoking.
Many smokers complain that nicotine gum and patches, which are promoted by government-funded anti-smoking campaigns, aren't satisfying; e-cigs give those trying to quit an experience closer to smoking. Many ex-smokers who'd failed to quit smoking with the government-endorsed solutions are now succeeding with e-cigarettes.
Yet the response from many of America's most prominent anti-smoking groups is a call for a ban on all TV and radio advertising of e-cigs. Last year's NJOY Super Bowl ad made activists furious. That ad, which also ran in select markets, focused on distinguishing between smoking and vaping (for the vapor emitted from e-cigs). Yet Bill Pfeifer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association's Southwest chapter, fumed that the NJOY ads were "slick misinformation" that should be banned by the Food and Drug Administration, and that both CBS and the NFL should have benched the ads.
Why would the American Lung Association, whose purpose is to reduce lung disease, oppose letting smokers learn about smoke-free e-cigarettes, which even opponents acknowledge are dramatically less harmful than smoking? Because, they argue, some e-cigs look like the real thing.
No, really. E-cigarette opponents say the products should be demonized because they look like cigarettes, or as the World Health Organization claims, they "normalize" smoking.
That some e-cigs look, feel and taste somewhat like cigarettes is actually what makes them so appealing to people trying to quit smoking. Yet if it were up to activist groups, alternatives to cigarette smoking would be entirely unappealing — and therefore ineffective.
As Clive Bates, the former head of Action on Smoking and Health, the largest anti-smoking group in the United Kingdom, recently stated at an e-cig investors conference held in New York City, "If you've got a very, very low risk product that no one wants to use, you don't get much harm reduction."
Instead, Bates encourages a pragmatic view of harm reduction that recognizes that so long as a product is far less hazardous than smoking, it should be free to compete with deadly combustible tobacco cigarettes.
And public-health advocates should favor giving them competitive edges over cigarettes, such as the opportunity to advertise to adults on TV.
Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC, and heads its Risk Analysis Division. Gregory Conley is a Heartland Institute research fellow.