Vaping and e-cigarettes are glamourised on social media, placing younger folks in hurt’s method
Despite their widespread reputation as a “safer” alternative to cigarettes, e-cigarettes (also known as electronic cigarettes or vapes) are far from harmless, especially for teenagers whose developing brains can have lifelong adverse effects from nicotine-containing products.
However, vaping and e-cigarettes are widely promoted by the industry and influencers on social media. It uses promotional tactics that were banned for tobacco in New Zealand in the 1960s and traditional media in Australia in the 1980s. These obvious advertisements will not be tolerated offline. So why is it happening on social media?
E-cigarettes are often portrayed on Twitter, YouTube and Instagram as a safe and healthy alternative to cigarettes.
This contradicts the opinion of health authorities such as the Surgeon General’s Office, the Australian Federal Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization (WHO).
The Advertising Standards Authority received 58 complaints about advertisements for vaping products in the past year. (Video first published in August 2019)
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There is significant evidence that e-cigarettes have adverse health effects. However, because they are relatively new (they were first introduced in the US market in 2007), their long-term implications are less clear.
Still, e-cigarettes are being touted as a harmless pastime online. Vape juice (which may or may not contain nicotine) is available in flavors like gummy bears, chocolate indulgence, and cherry crush, while social media influencers demonstrate fun vaping tricks or ways to customize e-cigarette devices.
There are even online vaping communities that offer social support and connectedness.
Where on the web is vaping being advertised?
To find this content, all you need is a smartphone and some relevant hashtags like product names or related terms like: #vape, #vapelife, #vapesale and #ejuice.
Images from Instagram, Twitter and TikTok show a mixture of modern advertising techniques and advertising tropes that have been used by the tobacco industry for decades.
There are pictures of scantily clad women with e-cigarettes, details of tantalizing vape juice flavors, and discount offers. The extent of this content is alarming.
This promotion, coupled with the variety and attractiveness of the product, the ease with which it can be bought online and the lack of adequate age verification, supports the growth of e-cigarettes, especially among young people. Young people are the biggest users of social media and are addressed directly.
The use of e-cigarettes has been described as an “epidemic among young people”. In Australia, lifelong use of e-cigarettes has increased significantly since 2013 – doubling in 14 to 17 year olds (4.3 to 9.6 percent) and among 18 to 24 year olds (7.9 to 26.1 percent) almost tripled) while cigarette smoking rates have declined.
Images from Instagram, Twitter and TikTok show a mixture of modern advertising techniques and advertising tropes that have been used by the tobacco industry for decades. (File photo)
Of particular concern is the increasing consumption of e-cigarettes by young Australians. While the advertising and promotion of this product is tightly regulated offline and age restrictions are relatively easy to enforce, posing as an adult online is often just a matter of the box.
Despite the dangers of e-cigarettes, many teenagers have positive opinions about it. Surveys have shown that young people see e-cigarettes as a healthier and less addictive alternative to cigarettes, with fewer harmful chemicals and fewer health risks from used fumes.
Tobacco companies traditionally infiltrate youth-friendly media. Almost all Australians between the ages of 18 and 29 use social media an average of more than 100 minutes a day. The high visibility of e-cigarettes available on social media can raise awareness, encourage experimentation and ingestion, and change social norms related to vaping.
Social media platforms have their own guidelines for tobacco advertising. Facebook and its Instagram subsidiary agree:
“Advertising must not advertise electronic cigarettes, vaporizers, or other products that simulate smoking.”
This directive has now been extended to all private sales, transactions, transfers or gifts of tobacco products.
Any brand that publishes content related to the sale or transfer of these products must limit it to adults aged 18 and over. It is still questionable whether this is even possible on social media.
Twitter’s paid advertising policy “prohibits tobacco products, accessories and brands from being advertised around the world”. However, this does not apply to the content of individual accounts.
TikTok’s advertising policy states:
“Ad motifs and landing pages may not display or advertise tobacco or tobacco-related products such as cigars, tobacco pipes, roll paper or e-cigarettes.”
However, in social media, where “influencer” content is the be-all and end-all, the lines between truly organic content and paid product placements are blurring.
In 2012, Australia attempted to counteract this emerging online situation by introducing laws that made it a criminal offense to advertise or advertise tobacco products on the internet unless it complies with existing advertising laws.
However, this legislation does not prohibit the sale of tobacco products, including vaping products, online, and there is very little that it can do about advertising from overseas websites.
It is unclear whether health authorities and regulators are informed about the extent and informative value of e-cigarette content on social media. It seems clear that more should be done to counter this.
New Zealand, along with nearly 170 other countries, has signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, calling on states to ban all advertising of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.
Action is required. Nations from which this content originates must give public health priority. There needs to be improved monitoring, surveillance and restriction of content that glorifies e-cigarettes, as well as improved age verification practices.
Jonine Jancey is an academic and collaborative director for Evidence, Research and Public Health Impact at Curtin University
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.