Cigarette advertising banned, but e-cig marketing widespread

man with e-cigarette in mouth


Cigarette advertising has been banned for decades, but adults today are widely exposed to e-cigarette marketing — especially on social media and TV.

Two studies by researchers in the Institute for Health Research and Policy, published in a special supplement in the July issue of Tobacco Control, look at e-cigarette marketing and its implications.

“There’s this whole wild west of social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — and the FDA has no way to track what’s happening,” said Jidong Huang, senior research scientist in the Institute for Health Research and Policy, who led a study of e-cigarette marketing on Twitter.

A study led by senior research scientist Sherry Emery found that E-cigarette marketing messages reach different demographic groups in different ways.

“While we cannot tell from this cross-sectional work whether the differences in e-cig media consumption reflect targeted marketing, self-selection, or a combination of the two, this work suggests that closer scrutiny of e-cig marketing practices is warranted,” Emery said.

E-cigarettes, also known as vaping pens or e-hookas, are commonly advertised on Twitter and the tweets often link to commercial websites promoting e-cig use, Huang said.

The researchers collected tweets and metadata related to e-cigarettes over two months in 2012. Of the 70,000 tweets they captured related to e-cigs, nearly 90 percent were commercial tweets and only 10 percent were individual consumer opinions. More than one-third of the commercial tweets offered coupons and 94 percent provided a website link.

Although only 11 percent of commercial tweets referenced smoking cessation, the absolute number is significant, Huang said, if considered over longer time frames than the two months of the study.

Since information on Twitter is accessible to anyone, “if kids or youth search for ‘vaping pen’ or ‘e-cig’ on Twitter, they will get links to commercial sites where they can purchase these items,” Huang said.

“There’s this whole wild west of social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — and the FDA has no way to track what’s happening.”

Emery’s study, which surveyed 17,522 adults online last year, found that 86 percent of those questioned were aware of e-cigarettes, and 47 percent had seen or heard about them on television, on the radio, in print media or online.

“These are significant findings, given how recently these products have entered the market and the fact that less than 20 percent of the U.S. population was aware of them five years ago,” the study authors reported.

Television was the most common medium for encountering e-cigs — two-thirds of people said they saw them on TV. Internet banner ads (14 percent), email (13 percent), Internet search engines (11 percent) and Facebook (9 percent) were other ways people encountered e-cigarette information.

Passive exposure to e-cig messaging — receiving information without seeking it — was more likely for tobacco users, young adults, males, those with more than a high school education, and people who use social media and spend more time online.

“These findings may have implications for e-cigarette marketing regulation,” Emery said.

Tobacco users were five times as likely as non-users to share information about e-cigarettes. Young adults were nearly twice as likely as others to have shared e-cigarette information.

E-cigarette users were more likely to search for and share e-cig information on Facebook.

The study found that Latinos and Lesbian, gay or bisexual individuals were more likely than others to share e-cig information.

The study is the first to explore how different groups interact with media messages about e-cigarettes, and it shows that social networking is a critical component of both formal and informal e-cig marketing.


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