E-cigarettes are often touted as a path for older smokers to quit traditional cigarettes. But the appeal of vaping culture is also leading to high numbers of teens experimenting with e-cigarettes. Linnea Laestadius, an assistant professor in the Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health, believes social media is a big reason why.
“Social media marketing allows e-cigarette companies to target the next generation of tobacco users, who can become addicted to nicotine early through vaping,” Laestadius says. It’s part of a pattern of tobacco marketing that targets vulnerable populations.
Youth-targeted promotional campaigns live in the social media realms where that audience digitally congregates. And marketers are capitalizing on teens’ attraction to sweet e-cigarette flavors.
With funding from the National Institutes of Health, Laestadius and Zilber School Associate Professor Young Cho scrutinized more than 1,000 Instagram posts promoting the flavored nicotine e-liquids used to refill e-cigarettes.
They found that the posts overwhelmingly emphasized positive experiences, personalization and aspirational identities. Warnings about health risks were exceptionally rare.
Moreover, almost a third of the content they examined featured e-liquids that tasted like baked goods, ice cream and other desserts, often using visual designs to make e-liquids look cool or cute.
Still, government-imposed marketing restrictions on vaping products are very limited. And though it’s illegal to sell the products to children under age 18, minors have found ways to buy e-cigarettes. In a separate study, Laestadius found evidence that the popular e-cigarettes called JUUL are frequently sold on eBay with no age verification.
In another recent study, Laestadius found evidence that tobacco companies target other susceptible populations. Working with multiple stakeholders, including Zilber School biostatistics Associate Professor Paul Auer, Laestadius analyzed advertising practices at stores in three demographically distinct Milwaukee-area ZIP code clusters, with a random sample of tobacco retailers drawn from each.
The audit showed tobacco products in Milwaukee are more aggressively marketed at stores in African-American and Latino neighborhoods than in white ones. Stores in the African-American and Hispanic areas were more likely to place tobacco next to candy, place ads in the line of sight of children and use outdoor advertising.
The results mirror other studies that found communities with lower incomes, lower educational attainment and more minority residents are subjected to significantly larger amounts of tobacco promotion.
That holds true for children in those communities, too, and such tactics matter. “The evidence is increasingly clear,” Laestadius says, “that children who are exposed to tobacco marketing in stores are more likely to start smoking.”