Do tobacco and vape companies target a youth market?

By Leo Melancon
November 13, 2019

Since the late 1990s, tobacco companies have been restricted in how and where they can advertise their products. Vape companies, only around since the early 2000s, may soon face similar restrictions in the wake of hundreds of vape-related illnesses now being tracked by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and potential Congressional legislation restricting vape products. And yet, smoking is still glamorized through images in movies, television and streaming content, according to the Truth Initiative’s research.

JUUL released a series of ads like this one to appeal to younger customers, despite claiming that their products are for adults. Photo provided by vox.com

More alarming, the use of vape and e-cigarettes by younger people has increased exponentially over the past two years, as these companies have used social media and other new forums to market their products.  

According to a University of Michigan study, “the increase in adolescent vaping from 2017 to 2018 was the largest ever recorded in the past 43 years for any adolescent substance use outcome in the U.S.”

Vape and e-cigarette companies such as JUUL, the leading manufacturer, claim to be marketing to adults, especially those who want to quit smoking traditional tobacco products. Yet there is a disconnect between their stated market and the demographic which predominantly purchases their products. According to the CDC, youth e-cigarette users increased by 1.5 million between 2017 and 2018. Several studies suggest this growth is due to the influence of targeted advertising.

The American Association of Pediatrics conducted a study that showed adolescents exposed to e-cigarette ads in retail stores were twice as likely to start vaping, and young adults similarly exposed were 25 percent more likely to start. According to the CDC, ads on the internet and social media use themes such as sex, independence and rebellion to appeal to the youth market. Young people are attracted by the packaging, the flavorings and statements that these products are for adults only. Social media has become a new frontier for tobacco and vape marketing.

A table listing some of the risks of smoking vapes and e-cigarettes. Info provided by the American Lung Association and Surgeon General.

“I have looked at it from the perspective of essentially who [the vape companies] are actually targeting,” Tangi James-Boone, marketing department instructor, said. “They’re using media outlets that are targeted towards younger generations . . . who are the primary social media users of things like Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.”

The current vaping health crisis is being tracked by the CDC already numbers 500 cases and 39 deaths across 49 states, with 40 percent of the cases affecting patients 18 to 24 years old. Also, Congressional hearings about the dangers of vaping, and FDA challenges about claims that e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes have already changed the way JUUL and similar companies are marketing their products.

“I’m not particularly sure where the fallout will land,” James-Boone said. “I’m not too sure what’s going to happen from a marketing perspective or an advertising perspective.”

“There’s been a lot of media attention, and for good reason, about the dangers of e-cigarettes and vaping,” Susan Fitzgerald, director of health services, said. “With the increased number of deaths of otherwise seemingly healthy young people because of vaping, I think it just draws attention that we don’t know all the risks. . . . We know that there are a lot more ingredients in e-cigarettes than people might be aware of, but obviously, a lot more research needs to be done into the health effects of e-cigarettes and vaping.”

Existing research has raised concerns about what is in e-cigarettes and vape juice. However, for many, not enough is known yet to justify cracking down on vape products and advertising.

“I think less effort should be put on demonizing it and more put on understanding it,” Andrew Carnago, sophomore chemistry major, said.  “My big thing is about understanding what you’re putting in your body and what it does. I think then you can make an informed decision on it, but there’s not enough information out there. I feel like it could be a more healthy alternative, but that’s not really where the focus is.” 

Smoking became popular in the mid-1800s when cigarette manufacturing became automated; it took almost 100 years for the deadly health effects of smoking tobacco to be proven.

An anti-smoking bulletin board posted outside the health center in Founders Hall. Photo by Leo Melancon

How long will it take for the potential dangers of vape and e-cigs to be fully researched? And how will the current backlash against vape and e-cigarettes play out in the marketplace?

“I think one of the things that people aren’t talking enough about is how vaping or e-cigarettes certainly could be looked at as a gateway to tobacco and regular cigarette smoking, especially if the government starts to crack down on vaping and its legality,” Fitzgerald said. “Smoking-related illness is the leading cause of death in this country: half a million people every year die from smoking-related diseases, whether it be heart disease or lung cancer, and we’ve known that for a long time. So to see that young people might go back to cigarette smoking after we made such strides in getting them away from cigarettes is beyond disappointing.”

Leo Melancon

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