Electronic cigarette use, or vaping, is unsafe for children, adolescents and young adults. Electronic cigarettes often contain nicotine and other harmful substances. Nicotine is addictive and can curb adolescent brain development, which continues into young adulthood. The leading electronic cigarette company insists it is not targeting youth as customers.
I study ways to inform public health and policy by using data from social media. As part of my research, I monitor the marketing material from tobacco companies, including electronic cigarette companies’ posts to Instagram, Twitter and YouTube – all platforms frequently used by young people.
Last year, my colleagues and I reported that electronic cigarette companies are using cartoons as a marketing strategy, and that many companies’ logos are cartoons. This suggests that cartoons are important to their brand identity.
Cartoon marketing for e-cigs is unregulated
Restrictions on cartoon marketing for combustible cigarettes and chewing tobacco have been in place since 1999. However, no such restrictions apply to electronic cigarettes.
In our follow-up study, recently published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, we examined the relationship between exposure to electronic cigarette marketing with cartoons and susceptibility to use such products in the future among young adults 18 to 25 years of age.
We recruited participants through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk), a web-based platform often used for experimental and survey research that has been shown to provide reliable data.
Participants (802 young adults) reported whether they had used electronic cigarettes in their lifetime, in the past six months and in the past 30 days. Those who had not used electronic cigarettes in their lifetime were categorized as “never users” (286 young adults) and were the focus of the study.
We wanted to determine if participants’ susceptibility to use electronic cigarettes in the future increased as a result of their exposure to cartoon-based marketing from electronic cigarette companies. Susceptibility was measured by responses to a series of questions such as, “Do you think that you will try vaping soon?”
Participants were presented with 22 images of electronic cigarette products. Eleven of the product images contained cartoons on the packaging, and 11 contained a noncartoon image. For each image, participants were asked to endorse whether or not they had seen the product before.
Thirty-eight percent of participants in our study recognized at least one cartoon-based marketing image. We found that among never-users, individuals who reported cartoon recognition were four times more likely to be susceptible to using electronic cigarettes in the future compared to those not susceptible.