WASHINGTON -- An investigation by Democratic members of Congress into the marketing practices of electronic cigarette companies found that major producers are targeting young people by giving away samples at music and sporting events and running radio and television advertisements during youth-oriented programs.
The inquiry, led by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., was conducted as the Food and Drug Administration prepares a major package of tobacco control rules that would place e-cigarettes under federal regulation for the first time.
The new rules have been slow to appear, and lawmakers said they hoped their report might help speed their release.
"It's time for the FDA to step up and regulate these products," Mr. Durbin said on a conference call last week with reporters. "We've got to put an end to the marketing of these products to kids."
Public health experts are deeply divided on the perils and benefits of e-cigarettes. Some say they offer the first satisfying alternative to smoking in generations and could greatly reduce health risks, while others contend they could become a gateway to traditional cigarette smoking for young people.
The report surveyed nine major producers, although only eight responded -- Altria, R.J. Reynolds Vapor Co., NJOY, Eonsmoke, Logic, VMR, Lorillard and Green Smoke. Six of them said they had sponsored events, and eight said they had given away samples. In all, 348 events featured giveaways and sponsorship in 2012 and 2013, "many of which appeared geared toward youth," the report said.
A spokesman for the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association, the e-cigarette industry's trade group, said, "we encourage responsible marketing directed to those over the age of 18," and added that it "does not support, and our industry does not use, youth-oriented product marketing."
The report found that Lorillard represented the largest portion of the giveaways and sponsorships in 2012 and 2013, providing free e-cigarette samples or sponsorship at 227 of the events, which included music festivals, parties and motor sports competitions. It also sponsored Freedom Project, a national tour by a number of bands. Earlier this year, tobacco control advocates criticized ads for the company's Blu brand e-cigarettes that ran in Sports Illustrated magazine and featured women in bikinis, calling them an attempt to appeal to teenage boys.
A spokesman for Lorillard said the company was reviewing the report.
NJOY, an e-cigarette company that does not make traditional cigarettes, said that it "does not market to young people." It added in a statement that it "has long supported sensible regulations to ensure that the e-cigarette industry is operating as an important alternative to tobacco cigarettes that cause the premature death of nearly a half million Americans every year."
"We fought for decades to set strict rules for marketing of traditional cigarettes," said Mr. Waxman. "E-cigarette manufacturers don't have to play by the same rules. They are free to sponsor youth-oriented events and make flavors that appeal to kids and that's exactly what's happening."
The report also found that the six e-cigarette manufacturers that provided full information to the inquiry more than doubled spending on marketing between 2012 and 2013, to a total of $59 million.
Last week, the FDA also released reviews of scientific literature on e-cigarettes. In one analysis, researchers at the agency said e-cigarette use was increasing among youth, citing data from a Utah study that found young people there were more likely to report using e-cigarettes than any other tobacco product. While e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco like traditional cigarettes, regulators consider them tobacco products because they contain nicotine, which can be derived from tobacco.