E-cig execs scorched on Capitol Hill

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Lawmakers had harsh words Wednesday for executives from a pair of electronic cigarette companies, accusing them of marketing their wares to children.

Representatives from the firms NJOY and Blu eCigs walked into a buzz saw of criticism from Senate Democrats, who responded with incredulity to claims that the billion-plus dollar, largely unregulated industry is only targeting adults.

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“I’m ashamed of you. I don’t know how you get to sleep at night, what gets you up in the morning, except the color green,” a visibly hot Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) said during the Senate Commerce Committee hearing. “You’re what’s wrong with this country.”

Several members of the panel echoed the criticism, pointing to reports that 1.78 million U.S. students have reported trying electronic cigarettes. The Food and Drug Administration has proposed regulations for the products, though finalization of the rules could drag on for many months.

In the meantime, the companies maintained that they are not marketing to kids. Blu eCigs President Jason Healy pointed to voluntary restrictions limiting the firm’s ads to media and events where the target audience is at least 85 percent adult.

“To be clear, no minor should be using a nicotine-containing product of any kind,” concurred NJOY President Craig Weiss.

The two men insisted that their products could eventually make traditional “combustion” cigarettes obsolete. A shift to e-cigs, which delivers nicotine through vapor, rather than smoke and tar, could improve public health, some have suggested.

“We are appalled at the toll that the tobacco epidemic has taken and continues to take each year on this country,” Weiss testified.

Several members of the panel indicated they were not buying the argument and said the electronic industry was doing little more than following the big tobacco playbook, which includes the use of favored brands and celebrity spokespeople.

“It’s just an accident that your advertising appeals to kids?” Durbin demanded. “We know better than that.”

— A previous version of this story contained incorrect information about the celebrity spokespeople affiliated with blu eCigs. The firm works with Stephen Dorff and Jenny McCarthy.