E-cigs for the Ladies

Sep 11, 2013 at 2:54 PM ET

Ask an attendee of New York Fashion Week what she’s carrying around in her massive tote bag and she’ll give you a list of her favorite products: kale juice, lipstick and, perhaps, an e-cigarette.

There’s no denying that the inhalable vapor is in vogue—especially among hip social smokers. And companies are pouncing on the female smoker market, peddling sexy e-cigarettes for the modern woman. But while the technology behind smoking has evolved, the marketing ploys are the same as they were 90 years ago, feeding desires for thin bodies and glamorous lifestyles.

“Women want to hold something between their middle and index fingers that looks elegant,” explains Maria Verven, owner, chief executive and “lead vamp” at Vaping Vamps, a company that produces e-cigs for women only. “If this is the type of smoker you are, this is the kind of product you would want.”

Verven founded Vaping Vamps in 2011 after sampling an e-cigarette at a company outing. After a bit of Googling, she was struck by the dearth of women-specific e-cigarettes on the market, and she soon set out to create her own brand. Vaping Vamps currently sells e-cigarettes in five “fabulous” flavors, including Mint Julie, Carmella and Mango Lola. The cigarettes come packaged in female-friendly luxe purple velvet.

And they say they’ve come a long way, baby. “This is not your mother’s cigarette,” says one sultry voice in a YouTube ad for Vapor Couture, a “fashionable” e-cigarette brand for the ladies. Vapor Couture is a subsidiary of V2 Cigs, a popular unisex e-cigarette. It launched in April 2012 to specifically target “chic” female smokers. The brand offers customizable cartridges and batteries, as well as flavors such as Bombshell, Rodeo Drive and Passion Fruit.

But that’s where the break from the past ends. After World War I, a number of cigarette brands, including Lucky Strikes, Parliament and Virginia Slims, marketed their cigarettes directly to women smokers. They used highly stylized ads like the ones below through the 1970s until today.

That strong, sexy feeling is exactly what Verven says her lady e-cigs offer today, minus the tobacco. “It’s a message of empowerment,” she explains, pointing to her website, which she specifically designed to evoke a 1920s flapper vibe. “You’re in charge of your health. You’re in charge of your sexuality. I’m definitely marketing my product as something sexy.”

The market for e-cigarettes is huge—$500 million market in 2012—and it’s growing. Facets of branding and optionality—such as the style, color, weight and flavor—are becoming increasingly important. “There seems to be a progression,” explains Elaine Keller, president of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association (CASAA). “Most people who go from cigarettes to e-cigarettes start off with something that looks like a cigarette. They end up moving to something a little larger. And of course, there’s a progression in flavors.”

According to Dr. Robert Jackler, professor of head and neck surgery at Stanford University and tobacco-marketing expert, marketing ploys for these e-cigarettes are actually quite similar to previous marketing campaigns. “Both of these brands glamourize smoking,” he says. “One of the primary marketing techniques of this industry is continuity.”

Jackler points out the similarities between a 1958 ad for Vanity Fair cigarettes and an ad for Vapor Couture e-cigs, below. “‘Couture’ and ‘Vanity Fair’ are similar in connotation,” he explains.

Vanity Fair Vapor Couture Ads

But the skinny part matters, too, in the e-cig search for continuity. The NutriCig, another brand of e-cig, is specifically marketed as an appetite-suppressant. And a page on Vaping Vamps website reads: “How about being in a restaurant and vaping a Tia Berry Vampstick for an after-dinner treat, without the calories? Or sitting in a bar, vaping a Mint Julie Vampstick instead of ordering another drink? Or waiting in the airport, vaping a Caramella Vampstick instead of a eating a candy bar?”

They may be calorie-free, furthering the weight-loss memes of the early cigarette ads, but that doesn’t mean they’re healthy. A series of recent studies go back and forth on whether e-cigs are, in fact, a healthier alternative to regular cigarettes. Some studies suggest that vaping (the act of inhaling the vapor from an e-cigarette) can help people kick their smoking habits. “Further research is needed to assess the potential public health benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes and other novel tobacco products,” a FDA spokesperson wrote in email.

And some e-cig advocates are concerned about a potential FDA crackdown on the vapes, citing enormous potential for the e-cig market in years to come, especially when it comes special lady cigs. “I think a lot is riding on how the FDA decides to to regulate them,” Keller says. “They could stifle innovation if they choose to regulate the hardware.”