Despite their widespread reputation as a “safer” alternative to cigarettes, electronic cigarettes (also known as electronic cigarettes or vapers) are far from harmless, especially for adolescents, whose developing brains may suffer from the lifelong adverse effects of nicotine-containing products.
Yet vaping and electronic cigarettes are widely disseminated on social networks by industry and influencers, using advertising tactics banned for tobacco in Australia in the 1980s for mainstream media. This blatant promotion is not tolerated offline, so why is it happening on social media?
On Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, Electronic cigarettes are often described as a safe and healthy alternative to cigarettes. This is in contradiction with the opinion of health authorities such as the Office of the Surgeon General, the Federal Department of Health
and the World Health Organization (WHO). There is substantial evidence that electronic cigarettes have adverse health effects but because they are relatively new (they were first introduced to the US market in 2007), their long-term effects are less obvious.
Yet e-cigarettes are touted online as a harmless recreational activity. Vape juice (which may or may not contain nicotine) comes in flavors like gummy bear, chocolate treat, and crushed cherry, while social media influencers are showcasing fun vaping tips or tricks. ways to customize electronic cigarette devices. There are even online vaping communities provide social support and connectivity.
There is no Australian federal law that directly applies to electronic cigarettes. Instead, several laws relating to poisons, therapeutics and tobacco apply. In Australian states and territories, it is illegal to sell e-cigarettes that contain nicotine, but users can import them legally through a “personal import program” if they have a medical prescription.
Those that do not contain nicotine can be sold in certain areas of Australia, provided there are no therapeutic claims. Our research found that despite Australia’s restrictions, the internet is facilitate access for people nicotine and vaping products. About three quarters of electronic cigarettes purchases are made online.
Where is vaping promoted on the web?
To find this content all you need is a smart phone and a few relevant hashtags like product names or related terms like: #vape, #vapelife, #vapesale, and #ejuice.
Images from Instagram, Twitter and TikTok display a mix of modern advertising techniques and advertising tropes that have been used for decades by the tobacco industry. There are images of scantily clad women with e-cigarettes, details on the enticing flavors of vape juice, and discount offers. The reach of this content is alarming.
This promotion, together with the diversity and attractiveness of the products, the ease of shopping online and the lack of proper age verification, supports the growth of e-cigarettes, especially among young people. Young people are the biggest users of social media and are directly targeted.
The use of electronic cigarettes has been described as “epidemic among young people“. In Australia, since 2013, lifelong use of electronic cigarettes has significantly increased – doubling among 14-17 year olds (4.3% to 9.6%) and almost tripling among 18-24 year olds (7.9% to 26.1%), while smoking rates have fallen.
This increase in the use of electronic cigarettes by young Australians is of particular concern. While the promotion and advertising of this product is strictly regulated offline, with age restrictions relatively easy to enforce, impersonating an adult online is often just a matter of checking a box.
Despite the dangers of electronic cigarettes, many teens positive opinions about them. Surveys have found that young people view e-cigarettes as a healthier and less addictive alternative to cigarettes, with fewer harmful chemicals and fewer health risks from second-hand vapors.
Tobacco companies have a tradition of infiltrating youth-friendly media. Almost all Australians between the ages of 18-29 use social media, for more than 100 minutes per day on average. the high visibility electronic cigarettes available on social media can raise awareness, encourage experimentation and adoption, and change social norms around vaping.
Social media platforms have their own policies on tobacco advertising. Facebook and its Instagram subsidiary to stipulate:
Advertisements must not promote electronic cigarettes, vaporizers or any other product that simulates smoking.
This policy has now been extended to all private sales, exchanges, transfers or donations of tobacco products. Any brand that posts content related to the sale or transfer of these products must restrict it adults 18 years of age or older. The question of whether this is even possible on social networks remains open.
Twitter paid advertising policy “Prohibits the promotion of tobacco products, accessories and brands in the world”. But this does not extend to the content of individual accounts.
TikTok advertising policy States:
Ad creative and landing page must not display or promote tobacco, tobacco related products such as cigars, tobacco pipes, rolling paper, or electronic cigarettes.
But on social media, where influencer content is king, the line between truly organic content and paid product placements is. blurry.
In 2012, Australia attempted to counter this emerging situation online by introducing legislation it is an offense to advertise or promote tobacco products on the Internet, unless you comply with applicable advertising laws. But this legislation does not prohibit the online sale of tobacco products, including vaping products, and there is little that can be done about advertisements from foreign websites.
It is unclear whether health authorities and regulators are aware of the breadth and accuracy of e-cigarette content on social media. It seems clear that more should be done to counter it.
Australia, along with nearly 170 other countries, is a signatory to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control , which call the nations ban all advertising of tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes.
Action is required. Australia and other countries where this content is sourced must prioritize public health. There is a need for improved monitoring, control and reduction of content that values electronic cigarettes, as well as improved age verification practices.