Would you work with electronic cigarette brands?

Agencies that are tempted to explore the burgeoning e-cigarette market face an ethical dilemma, David Benady writes.

Is it ethically justifiable to advertise electronic cigarettes? As the sector matures, the question is no longer a philosophical one.

An advertising arms race has begun as e-cigarette brands look to build their market share. Last year, around £10 million was spent on ads for e-cigarettes, which reported sales of nearly £200 million in the UK. Spend is expected to rise significantly over the next two years as sales boom.

Many agencies are already involved. Iris has created ads for Vype, Walker Media works on Njoy and Brothers and Sisters was recently appointed to the £20 million Skycig account.

Many argue that advertising e-cigarettes is a good thing. The products can help people quit tobacco and there is no evidence that e-cigarettes are harmful to health.

But others are uneasy. They say the products normalise cigarettes and fail to cure nicotine addiction. More­over, there are fears that the ads could appeal to under-18s and glamorise smoking.

The emergence of e-cigarettes leaves some agencies in a difficult position. Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which works with Cancer Research UK and has run ads for the smoking-cessation brand Nicorette, has a policy of not working with tobacco companies. But the agency refused to comment on whether it would collaborate with an e-cigarette brand. The media agencies MediaCom, MEC, ZenithOptimedia and Manning Gottlieb OMD also declined to clarify their position.

Within two years, the issue will be transformed when the European Union Tobacco Products Directive is introduced in the UK.

This will class e-cigarettes with less than 20mg of nicotine as tobacco products and thus unable to engage in "cross-border advertising". Those with more than 20mg must be licensed by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. Ads will then be strictly regulated and required to focus on the product’s role in smoking cessation. E-cigarette manufacturers have vowed to fight the directive.

Some predict a land grab, with companies advertising heavily to build their brand and market share before a clampdown. But who will be willing to take their money?

YES Simon Davis, chief executive, Walker Media "Njoy markets responsibly: opposing sales to minors, supporting balanced regulation and clearly marketing to over-18s. Its mission is to make combustion cigarettes obsolete, and we’re delighted to help make this happen." NO Russ Lidstone, chief executive, Havas Worldwide London "Nicotine replacement therapy has always been licensed and is able to claim that the products help smokers quit. Unlicensed e-cigarettes are unable to do this – which makes legitimacy of advertising debatable." NO Jonathan Trimble, chief executive, 18 Feet & Rising "E-cigarettes want to position themselves as being as good as the real thing, which means making smoking ads. While it is futile to be moralistic (we’re in advertising), you will be judged as an agency with neither scruples nor creativity."  YES Richard Morris, managing director, Vizeum "The big challenge for any agency that works with an e-cigarette brand is to develop a strategy that takes into account the public sensitivity and uncertainty around them. It’s a task that will test their creativity and innovative spirit."