Advertising of “Emerging Products” like E-cigarettes Monitored as Products’ Popularity Rises

Release Date:

February 21, 2014

Washington, D.C.; February 21, 2014 – While the tobacco industry spends more than $8 billion a year marketing its products, a new study examining online advertisements finds that the industry’s ads primarily focus on promoting e-cigarettes, snus, and cigars according to the national public health foundation Legacy®. The study, published in the peer review journal, Tobacco Control, is the first to conduct comprehensive surveillance of all tobacco and e-cigarette online banner/video advertising in the US and Canada occurring online over the course of a full year.

These findings are consistent with trends in the popularity of new products, such as snus and electronic cigarettes, which are growing steadily in both the US and overseas. Annual sales of smokeless tobacco products now exceed $2.93 billion globally and sales of e-cigarettes continuing to grow; reaching $2 billion globally in 2011. Although advertising of cigarettes and little cigars on broadcast media has long been banned, online advertising has allowed the tobacco industry to promote its products in a space that has broad reach and is largely unregulated. This may, in part, explain why Internet advertising expenditures for smokeless tobacco have increased in the United State significantly since 2006.

For the Legacy study, a full-service advertising firm that monitors the top 250 websites/URLs for online display ads was used to quantify the volume and characteristics of the tobacco industry and e-cigarette online banner/video ads. The study also investigated the demographics of the online audience that they reach. From the group of websites and URLs monitored, 43 different online ads were identified and found to be sponsored by the tobacco and e-cigarette industries. Key findings include:


  • Tobacco and e-cigarette advertisements were found on 180 out of the 250 websites that were monitored
  • More than half of the online ads (24) were unique ads promoting various brands of e-cigarettes


  • Snus ads appeared on a wide variety of websites covering many different topics from news and health, to cars and job search sites. Conversely, e-cigarette ads predominantly appeared on websites focused on music and entertainment or news.
  • Compared to the other products advertised, e-cigarette ads were placed on websites with the highest average percentage of a youth audience, with some websites having a youth audience as high as 35%


  • More than half of all the ads, when clicked, linked to another website or landing page, typically the company’s home page. None of those homepages featured any information on how to quit smoking.
  • E-cigarette ads were most likely to feature themes of harm reduction; use as an aide to quit smoking; being more environmentally-friendly alternative to cigarettes; or as an alternative to cigarettes when someone cannot smoke. 

While there may only be a small amount of room for messaging on online display ads, several disconcerting themes emerged which included the promotion of price reductions and discounts.  “Since price influences tobacco use initiation, these online ads may have the most negative impact among price-sensitive groups including youth, young adults, racial/ethnic minorities and those with lower levels of education and income—all of which have been targeted by the industry in the past” said Donna Vallone, PhD, Senior Vice President for Research and Evaluation at Legacy.  

Currently, electronic cigarettes can be sold to minors in many places throughout the country and are offered in a wide variety of flavors that appeal to kids and teenagers like cherry, cotton candy, and Gummi Bear. Online ads examined in the study were most likely to be placed on websites centered on music and entertainment – common interests for young people and teenagers, where a considerable percent of the online audience is under the age of 24. More than 90 percent of smokers start by the age of 20.  

“As smoking prevalence among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders has recently declined to just below 10 percent, we must be mindful of any marketing techniques that have the potential to undo and reverse this trend among vulnerable young people,” said Legacy’s President and CEO, Robin Koval. “Any encouragement to use their first tobacco products and initiate a nicotine addiction could potentially lead to them becoming lifelong tobacco users and undermine our efforts to achieve a ‘Generation Free’ of tobacco use.”

While the amount spent on online advertising (about $2 million) doesn't represent a large portion of the tobacco industry’s advertising and promotional budget ($8.8 billion), there still remains a sizable portion of pro-tobacco content on the Web not captured by this study. User-generated promotional messages are being spread through YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook, as well as online blogs and forums that are dedicated solely to e-cigarette users. While it would be near impossible to track all content connected to tobacco on the Internet, it is important to monitor how this content influences tobacco use, attitudes, and perceptions, particularly among the youth that frequent many of these websites.

With its mission to keep young people from smoking and help all smokers quit, Legacy continues to monitor tobacco advertising around new and emerging products. In a study published early this year in Nicotine and Tobacco Research, Legacy monitored the advertisements of all noncombustible tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes and snus, over the course of a three-month period. During that time, roughly $20 million was spent on advertising. While cigarette advertising is prohibited on television, it is currently fair game to use television to promote electronic cigarettes. More info on the study can be found here:


Legacy helps people live longer, healthier lives by building a world where young people reject tobacco and anyone can quit. Legacy’s proven-effective and nationally recognized public education programs include truth®, the national youth smoking prevention campaign that has been cited as contributing to significant declines in youth smoking; EX®, an innovative public health program designed to speak to smokers in their own language and change the way they approach quitting; and research initiatives exploring the causes, consequences and approaches to reducing tobacco use. Located in Washington, D.C., the foundation was created as a result of the November 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) reached between attorneys general from 46 states, five U.S. territories and the tobacco industry. To learn more about Legacy’s life-saving programs, visit 

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