NNA's complaint about a misleading anti-e-cigarette advertisement has been upheld by Advertising Standards Authority.

A radio advertisement, commissioned by Lancashire County Council and broadcast on 15 and 23 September 2015 on local radio station Rock Radio stated "Have you ever used an e-cig? Did you know they're not risk free? Some contain nicotine and other chemicals that can cause addiction. We still don't know enough about the health risks of e-cigs. So don't take the risk. Get the facts ...". Rock radio’s target audience includes young people and the advertisement also carried a warning about under-age purchase.

The New Nicotine Alliance UK (NNA UK) and the Electronic Cigarette Industry Trade Association (ECITA) separately complained to the Advertising Standards Authority on the grounds that the claim that "Some contain nicotine and other chemicals that can cause addiction" was misleading and could not be substantiated, and the assertion that "We still don't know enough about the health risks of e-cigs. So don't take the risk" was irresponsible, because it might encourage smokers to continue smoking.

After considerable correspondence going back over several months the ASA finally gave a very positive decision regarding this and upheld the complaint – see below.

Dear [NNA]

Our apologies for the delay with this investigation, which has taken longer than we anticipated. However, we are now in a position to resolve your complaint.

The BCAP Code requires “special category” radio ads, whether broadcast locally, regionally or nationally, to be centrally cleared by Radiocentre, the clearance body for radio ads.  The Lancashire County Council (LCC) ad falls in to the special category list.  However, Rock FM has acknowledged that they did not seek clearance from Radiocentre and therefore the ad is in automatic breach of the Code.

Notwithstanding that point, the Code also states that ads must not suggest that claims are universally accepted if a significant division of informed or scientific opinion exists.  We have discussed the issues with Lancashire County Council (LCC) and they have now given us an assurance that their future ads will not include unconditional claims about the risks of e-cigs while informed and scientific opinion is still divided on the matter.

We consider their assurance will resolve the complaint without referring the matter to the ASA Council, and will consequently be closing our file.  In a formal investigation, if the ASA Council decides that an ad is in breach of the Code, the advertisers are told to withdraw or amend it.  Because LCC has already agreed not to use similar unconditional claims in the future, we consider there is little to be gained from continuing with a formal investigation on this occasion, which would achieve that same outcome.

Although we will not publish full details of your complaint on our website, www.asa.org.uk, basic information including the advertiser’s name and where the ad appeared will appear on Wednesday 1 June. 

We believe this represents a fair outcome that vindicated our initial complaint, and that the judgement could well act as a deterrent to ‘others’.


Addendum: For an interesting take on this story please read Robert Innes' blog "Because we think it dangerous to walk blindfolded down a country lane.."