06/25/2014 12:20 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2014

Companies Must Be Held Accountable for E-Cigarette Marketing That Reaches Kids and Teens

Just a few generations ago, young people were bombarded with marketing messages from cigarette companies on television, in magazines, on billboards, at sports and cultural events, and multiple other channels. Even cartoon characters were seen lighting up. And we now know this marketing played an important role in hooking millions of young people on smoking.

The good news is that today smoking among high school students is at a 22-year low -- after years of multi-pronged smoking prevention and tobacco control efforts.

But unfortunately we are now seeing a flood of marketing regarding a new product known as e-cigarettes. This product not only looks a lot like a traditional cigarette, it's used by mimicking the act of smoking. And, like cigarettes, e-cigarettes deliver the highly addictive substance nicotine to the user.

Much more research needs to be done before we know the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes. Some research suggests they could prove helpful in getting smokers to quit; other research suggests they may discourage quitting.

But since generations of cigarette users became addicted to nicotine in their youth, it only makes sense to be alarmed about whether e-cigarettes could also put young people on a similar path to addiction.

Recently we learned that young people are increasingly becoming aware of and trying e-cigarettes. Surveys have shown that awareness by teens of e-cigarettes is "nearly ubiquitous," with nearly 90 percent of teens reporting that they know what an e-cigarette is. Even more troubling are reports that use of e-cigarettes by teens has doubled in the past year.

Because of these trends, last fall I joined several of my colleagues in an investigation into the marketing practices by major e-cigarette manufacturers. Our findings were disturbing: E-cigarette companies are aggressively marketing these products using techniques with broad reach and appeal to youth.

We discovered that techniques used by some companies included advertising on television and radio; advertising in print media including magazines popular with youth; online and social media outreach; sponsorship of sporting and entertainment events; use of celebrities to promote the products; and manufacturing and marketing products with candy, dessert, and fruit flavors. We also found that companies varied widely when it came to self-regulation around youth marketing, such as voluntarily imposing age requirements for accessing content on popular social media channels.

Many of the practices e-cigarette companies are using to pitch their products are prohibited for cigarette marketing under measures like the comprehensive 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, but these restrictions do not currently apply to e-cigarettes. The FDA is currently working to create regulations for these products, but the process could take a while to finalize.

In order to take a closer look at the marketing practices of e-cigarettes reaching youth and teens, last week I convened a hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee.

At the hearing, the committee heard from top public health organizations about concerns regarding youth use of nicotine products, and how e-cigarette marketing could risk turning back years of efforts to de-normalize and de-glamorize smoking for young people.

Representatives of leading e-cigarette companies also testified regarding their marketing practices. These executives firmly stated that their intention was only to market to adults, publicly promised to avoid use of cartoon characters in advertising, and expressed willingness to consider additional voluntary limitations on marketing that could reach young people.

I will be watching closely to make sure these companies and other makers of e-cigarettes are accountable for marketing that reaches kids. Our youngest generation cannot become guinea pigs for e-cigarette products while we wait for more conclusive research about their health impacts.