Huffington Post launched HuffPost Live in August with a barrage of ongoing video content that seemed both promising and quite flawed at the same time. For a full 12 hours a day, live content would be offered to viewers without charge or obvious information farming. Initial reactions were mixed, but largely similar. Basically, it seemed like a good idea that could only progress and improve with time.
Three months later that project is still going on and it landed on electronic cigarettes. The topic was meant to focus on the appearance of e-cigs on TV despite bans against cigarette advertising on television since 1971. The topic went off the rails fairly quickly due to an ill-prepared host and a poorly selected panel. Most of the conversation ended up focusing on the most rudimentary aspects of the technology, missed the mark even on that, and degenerated into a poorly organized for or against argument.
You can watch the discussion here.
Pages could be spent poking holes in almost every part of the discussion, but there is a much more important issue at hand. Instead, we will cover a couple of the most egregious pieces and move on to a topic we haven’t covered more than once before.
First, There is a great deal of fair, unbiased research about electronic cigarettes already available despite what is said. According to a report in 2009, our knowledge of the chemical constituents of electronic cigarettes even then had already surpassed that of tobacco smoke. Research into the health impact of e-cigs suggests that — for the average smoker — use of e-cigs for the rest of your life is likely less harmful than 2 months of smoking. Finally, marketing research has shown that e-cigs predominantly appeal to current and ex-smokers (not non-smokers) over the age of 30 (not minors) who would like to cut back on or quit smoking (not add to the amount they smoke).
HuffPost Live is the far shallower younger brother of Huffington Post — seemingly incapable of taking the time necessary to do a job really well. It starts out with the stellar topics fished out by the smart, discerning older brother and butchers them with poorly selected interviewees and really weak hosts. The love affair HuffPost Live has with webcam panel discussions is admirable, but a bit destructive when hosts can’t keep focus on the topic at hand and panel members are selected by availability rather than relevancy.
The reputation of electronic cigarettes is suffering not because there’s much bad to say about them (unless someone chooses to bend the truth), but because those against them are far more organized and far better equipped for battle. Those against may be using half-truths, lies of omission, and outright deception to win, but that doesn’t change the fact that in most media arenas, they are winning. The HuffPost Live piece is a good example of this.
Out of the 4 panel members, 2 are old professory-looking sorts very clearly against electronic cigarettes, one is a CEO of an e-cig company who’s word will be questioned from the start by any mild skeptic, and, lastly, a smoker that hasn’t tried e-cigs and frankly had no business being involved in the conversation (and I suspect from his demeanor that he knew it). So right away, the panel isn’t what one might call balanced.
More to the point, Blu founder and president Jason Healy was the only person in the discussion equipped to speak on electronic cigarette advertising on TV. His company produced one of the commercials in question (see it here). Ideally, FCC and marketing folks would have been tapped to discuss what it meant to have something resembling smoking advertised on TV. Instead, the chosen panel — with the help of a host that knew almost nothing about e-cigs and so asked the most rudimentary of questions — degenerated into a for or against argument. This is not an argument one young CEO can win against two embittered over-the-hill science geeks.
There are pro-e-cig individuals out there that can win in these circumstances, but they can’t be everywhere–and the anti-e-cig folks seem conspicuously unavailable when the opportunity to debate them arises. So the e-cig world needs two things. First, every person who might be or is tapped to discuss e-cigs should prepare with a few solid facts in case things do degenerate into a for or against argument (here’s a good place to start). Second, when the media decides to cover electronic cigarettes, they will need to start doing some serious fact checking.
The e-cig community doesn’t have a lot of control over what the media decides to run. However, the more it comments on, questions, and shares pieces (good or bad), the more the media will begin to realize there is much more to this market. Even the Huffington Post — a generally fair and insightful community of writers — hasn’t really gotten electronic cigarettes. Their last serious article about e-cigs came more than a year ago and was written by the author of Smoke-Free in 30 Days: The Pain-Free, Permanent Way to Quit. There’s little surprise it was slanted against e-cigs, but maybe that means they’re past due for an in-depth look at the technology that could tumble the preventable giant.