The Influence of Social Media on Teen Use of E-Cigarettes
E-cigarette use—or vaping—among youth is on a dramatic rise.
Posted March 21, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
E-cigarette use—or vaping—among youth is on a dramatic rise. In just one year, from 2017 to 2018, e-cigarette use rose by 78% among high school students. With almost 3 in 5 teens vaping, more high school students than adults smoke e-cigarettes. Of great concern, only 1 in 3 teens who vape know that e-cigarettes have nicotine. In fact, one of the most common reasons teens say they vape is the flavors.
There is an increased presence of e-cigarette companies on social media—most notably, by JUUL. This has led some researchers to suggest that higher youth vaping rates are, at least in part, attributable to social media branding and marketing. Although e-cigarette companies strongly deny targeting teens in their marketing practices, there has been a recent push towards regulating them and more scrutiny over their marketing practices to curb teen nicotine product use.
Health Impacts of E-Cigarettes
E-cigarettes are sometimes described as a healthy alternative to traditional cigarettes. They nonetheless are associated with similar health impacts as traditional cigarettes. Indeed, the Surgeon General suggests that both nicotine addiction and negative impacts on brain development could be linked to vaping.
Presence on Social Media
E-cigarettes are all over social media. A study conducted in 2013 found that almost 30,000 videos showing people vaping were available on YouTube, and more than 100 million views were reported. One of the most popular e-cigarette companies is JUUL. In the recent past, JUUL has spent over a million dollars on advertising campaigns on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. A recent study finds that JUUL’s presence on Instagram is ever increasing: seven of its most popular accounts (including third-party vendors) have more than 2.5 million followers. It is not uncommon for their ads to include youth, potentially marketing their product to underage consumers, and one study finds that underage Twitter users are following and retweeting JUUL’s Twitter account. More generally, about 7 in 10 middle and high school-aged youth have seen some sort of e-cigarette advertising; the Internet is the second most common source for this advertising.
Recently, JUUL suspended many of its social marketing strategies in November 2018 due to mounting pressure. Other large vaping companies are also distancing themselves from social media marking. Mig Vapor reported that they will no longer be using their official Instagram account starting January 1, 2019. Although this may reduce the number of teens exposed to vaping products through direct marketing, there are still many third-party vendors that are advertising and marketing the products through social media. For example, Mig Vapor currently has a “Partner Program” that encourages people to recommend and market their products. Similar programs have sparked backlash recently in the tobacco industry. In fact, nine petitioners gathered evidence that demonstrates the tobacco industry’s attempts to normalize and encourage tobacco use among teens via social media influencers. They sent this as a petition to four large tobacco companies, exhorting them to “stop deceptive advertising online.” Although this petition is not directed against e-cigarette companies, the same tobacco marketing tactics are being used by these companies. Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, one of the petitioners, has also actively spoken out against the e-cigarette industry’s use of fun flavors and packaging to appeal to a youth market. Deactivating social media is only the first step that e-cigarette companies need to take to keep their products out of the hands of young people.
There are many benefits of social media, including increased social support, self-expression, and self-exploration. At the same time, unregulated advertising of e-cigarettes to youth through social media and advertising campaigns elsewhere can lead to the glamorization of vaping among young people; and this could lead to their use. With more research and regulation, there is hope that e-cigarette companies will move away from appealing to youth consumers and youth will be less inclined to try vaping. In the meantime, we need to talk to our kids about the health effects of vaping to counteract their currently ‘cool and healthy’ mystique.
Learn more about our research at the Center for Innovative Public Health Research.
Thank you to Courtney Crivelli and Emily Goldstein for your contributions to this post.
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