The number of posts promoting and marketing the use of e-cigarettes on Instagram is so massive, it outnumbers posts from awareness campaigns 10,000 to one — which could potentially attract more young people to the habit.
Initially marketed as a better way to wean off tobacco, e-cigarettes have been steadily rising in popularity. But the products — usually containing the addictive substance nicotine — also grabbed a hold on youth, primarily through the sale of flavoured options.
According to the U.S. National Youth Tobacco Survey, the number of high-school students who said they used e-cigarettes more than doubled from 12 per cent in 2017 to 28 per cent in 2019.
After research began showing that repeated e-cigarette use could lead to lung and brain damage, the U.S. Food and Drug administration launched a youth-oriented awareness campaign, The Real Cost, to focus on the dangers of vaping.
In a new study published in Frontiers in Communication, researchers from the University of California analyzed hundreds of thousands of posts on Instagram between 2017 and 2019 to see whether the FDA campaign had an impact on vaping’s social interactions.
What they found was quite the opposite.
Julia Vassey, lead author of the study and a researcher at the UC Berkeley Center for Integrative Research on Childhood Leukemia and the Environment, said the study found that the average amount of likes on pro-vaping Instagram posts actually went up once the FDA campaign started.
“The FDA campaign on social media, it’s great that it’s there, but it’s not changing the trend of high prevalence of pro-vaping content,” Vassey told the National Post.
Vassey’s team focused on Instagram after learning from e-cigarette “influencers” that they were pouring all their money and attention on attracting followers to the platform. Some of these influencers shared their analytics data with the team and it learned that around 16 per cent of followers of pro-vaping accounts were aged 13 to 17.
Researchers found that each pro-vaping hashtag, like #vape or #vapenation, published more than 500,000 new posts every month. Comparatively, the FDA campaign’s hashtag, #TheRealCost, only published about 50 a month in the same timeframe.
“The FDA campaign just becomes a drop in the ocean, practically, because it’s so hard to compete with the enormous volume of pro-vaping advertisements,” Vassey said.
Lesley James, senior manager, policy, at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, said it’s just as bad in Canada. According to a national survey, 20 per cent of youth in Canada use e-cigarettes and 34 per cent have tried it at least once — and James said many young people are attracted by flavoured vape options.
“It’s really concerning because we’re worried about a new generation of young people who could become addicted to nicotine,” James said in a telephone interview. The Foundation recently released a video in partnership with the Canadian Lung Association comparing selling flavoured vape products to giving ice cream laced with nicotine to children.
Vassey’s team analyzed more than 40,000 vaping posts on Instagram through a “deep learning” software that allowed it to identify the contents of each image. The team found that the most popular e-cigarette marketing posts featured female models using vapes, or men doing tricks with the vapes.
“That’s one of the dangerous things, youth are very susceptible to any type of influence that is so well advertised,” Vassey said. “Their brains are still developing, it’s hard to resist. They want to fit in and they want to be cool. All the marketing strategies are so well crafted in the pro-cigarette message.”
The FDA social media campaign, Vassey said, could improve its approach. In focus groups, her team learned that the organization’s “fear-mongering” style — where the organization hoped to dissuade young people from vaping by simply sharing all the potential dangers of repeated use — didn’t sit too well with the youth it was trying to reach. Vassey recommends organizations like the FDA reevaluate how their message is being portrayed to young users online, and try to find new ways to connect with them.
She knows how it sounds, but says that learning from the strategies that are working for e-cigarette influencers online — accessible language, more enticing visuals — but adapting them with public health messages could be a more effective tool.
Health Canada advertises the risks related to vaping on their website, but also hosts seminars in high schools where it engages with teens aged 13 to 18 directly through activities. Since 2018, the organization has been posting advertisements on the dangers of vaping to social media sites like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitch.
In a statement sent to the National Post, Health Canada’s senior media relations advisor Maryse Durette said that 26 per cent of youth said they would stop vaping after seeing ads from Health Canada’s outreach program on social media, and 72 per cent of teens who participated in the in-person school activities said that they were likely to not start or to stop vaping.
Durette said Health Canada has also been working with “youth and parent influencers” on social media sites like Instagram to create and share posts that discourage young people from vaping. She said they’ve created more than 160 posts so far which garnered 3.79 million impressions.
James said that more work should also be put towards campaigning for governmental regulation, instead of just trying to compete with massive advertising efforts for youth’s attention. Currently, regulation varies from province to province, but she said if the federal government could prevent young people from seeing the vape marketing in the first place, they would be less likely to start using e-cigarettes.
“We have faith that society and government overall will put the health of young people ahead of the interests of corporation and we’ll see regulation in the near future to protect young people,” James said.
In December, the Minister of Health Patty Hajdu announced a potential new regulation that would prohibit advertising of vape products anywhere that young people would be able to see it, including online, and would require a health warning statement about the dangers of vaping products in whatever vaping ads are still permitted.
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