Rolling Stone magazine and a fast-growing vaping brand are taking heat over a rooftop concert series that critics say is meant to make e-cigarettes look cool to kids.
Vuse — a vaping company owned by tobacco giant Reynolds American — joined forces with Rolling Stone to promote Rooftop Sessions, a run of three virtual concerts that were livestreamed from locations around New York City on Nov. 20.
“Our adult vapor consumers are looking for inspirational experiences and this is another example of Vuse delivering moments that speak to their enthusiasm,” Vuse senior vice president Leila Medeiros said in a Nov. 17 statement.
Critics contend the series is geared toward an audience that could easily include people under the legal smoking age of 21. It featured 20-minute sets from the rock band Cold War Kids, singer Elle King and rapper Oddisee. “Saturday Night Live” cast member Chloe Fineman played host, introducing each act from a waterfront location boasting views of the city skyline.
Vaping watchdogs say Vuse is taking a page straight from Big Tobacco’s playbook by sponsoring concerts clearly aimed at young people — something cigarette brands can’t get away with under federal law.
In addition to the choice of acts, observers pointed to the bright orange colors on the slickly designed Web page where Rolling Stone broadcast the shows. Vuse promoted the series heavily on its Instagram page, sharing 10 images and videos about it over nine days, including a shot of Cold War Kids that declared, “Indie is back on scene.” Another post featured an animation of an apartment building drawn to look like an amplifier, a design that also appeared on Rooftop Sessions-branded T-shirts and tote bags Vuse sold on its Web site.
“From the company who brought you Joe Camel, this is exactly the type of behavior they used and the government stopped because of its impact on youth,” Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told The Post, referring to Reynolds’ former cartoon mascot for Camel cigarettes.
“The fact that they are doing it for this new product is as clear an indication that they intend to replicate their marketing efforts to young people.”
Rolling Stone and Reynolds American defended the concerts, saying they were geared toward an adult audience in compliance with the law. The shows’ stated purpose was to “bring live music back to the people” and raise money for musicians unable to make a living because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Vuse looks to inspire creativity and celebrate the expression of the human spirit by sharing one of our passions — music — with adult fans who may have missed live concerts this year and who want to give back to the music community,” a Reynolds spokesperson told The Post. “We do not want our products in the hands of minors. Period.”
Concerns about vaping products catering to kids have dogged the industry for years. US market leader Juul has faced scrutiny for recruiting social-media influencers to promote its products. The Washington, DC-based company shut down its Facebook and Instagram accounts in 2018 and halted all broadcast, print and digital advertising last year.
The Food and Drug Administration has also called out other vaping companies who have put their products in packaging that imitates candy or snack brands, or features cartoon characters similar to SpongeBob SquarePants and the Powerpuff Girls.
In the case of Rooftop Sessions, advocates contend the promotion ran afoul of the FDA’s guidance for how e-cigarettes can be marketed — even though it’s not strictly illegal for vaping brands to sponsor concerts like it is for tobacco companies.“
Clearly Reynolds, who’s been in the cigarette business for a while, understands these regulations very closely and so they’re taking advantage of that,” said Lauren Lempert, a law and policy specialist at the University of California, San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research & Education.
“Maybe Rolling Stone isn’t quite the youth magazine that it was when I was a kid, but certainly it’s still bumping up against what’s illegal,” she added.
In guidance released early this year, the FDA said it would prioritize its enforcement efforts against several categories of unauthorized vaping products — including those “targeted to minors or whose marketing is likely to promote use” by minors.
E-cigarette-makers are also legally required to submit applications for federal marketing authorizations that must show their products will not lead young people and other nonusers to pick up vaping.
“One of the things the FDA is requiring is information about how these products, how these companies . . . will take steps to make sure that exactly what they’re doing now, as evidenced by this sponsorship, will not happen,” said Meredith Berkman, co-founder of Parents Against Vaping e-Cigarettes, which has filed a complaint with the FDA about Vuse promoting the concerts.
“That’s sort of the absurdity — they are literally doing in full view what it is that they are required to say they won’t do,” Berkman added.
The FDA declined to comment on whether it’s investigating Vuse’s promotion, but the agency said it will take action whenever it spots a product targeted to kids.
“We will continue to use our regulatory authority to tackle this alarming crisis that’s affecting children, families, schools and communities,” an FDA spokesperson told The Post. “We will also continue to closely monitor data regarding youth usage of all e-cigarette products and adjust our enforcement priorities to address youth use as necessary.”