E-cigarette popularity still grows on Instagram despite FDA anti-vaping campaign

girl vaping at home on phone
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A new study by Frontiers has revealed that positive vaping hashtags on Instagram outnumber anti-vaping content 10,000 to one

Published in Frontiers in Communication, the researchers from the University of California, Berkeley analysed over 200,000 Instagram posts which showed that positive vaping hashtags are used 10,000 times more than the FDA vaping awareness campaign content. This highlights the growing use of e-cigarettes among young users.

“The Real Cost” awareness campaign launched in 2018 by the FDA revealed that nearly one-third of American teenagers are estimated to use e-cigarette devices. The current study demonstrates the limited impact of the FDA awareness campaign. The artificial intelligence method, deep learning, also highlighted the marketing campaign tactics used by vaping companies to target users.

Julia Vassey, corresponding author, University of California, Berkeley said: “U.S. public health officials have been calling vaping among youth an epidemic and have been putting a lot of effort into trying to stop this epidemic by introducing #TheRealCost anti-vaping campaign, but this stark imbalance in the volume of posts has caused the FDA message to be overwhelmed by marketing from the vaping brands.”

A positive view of vaping

E-cigarettes are deemed as a healthier version than conventional cigarettes by many young people. However, vaping has been associated with inflammation, reduced immune responses and breathing problems.

To gain a deeper insight to how vaping is perceived across social media, Vassey and her colleagues at the UC Berkeley Centre for Integrative Research on Childhood Leukaemia and the Environment (CIRCLE), collected and analysed 245,894 Instagram posts spanning from before and after the #TheRealCost campaign was launched. Additionality, the researchers also interviewed five vaping influencers and eight college-age social media users.

Propaganda and scare tactics

After the launch of the campaign, Vassey and her team discovered that vaping posts were liked nearly three times more, despite the FDA interventions. They also discovered that there were six times as many posts that had greater than 100 likes.

Vassey explained: “We focused on Instagram because the vaping influencers we interviewed for this study identified Instagram as their most important social media marketing platform. Based on the results, the FDA anti-vaping campaign is not very popular, and we saw Instagram user comments disputing the FDA claims of damaging health effects from nicotine and calling the campaign propaganda.”

During the interviews conducted with vaping influencers and college social media users, they viewed the FDA campaign negatively, suggesting they promoted scare tactics and didn’t provide advice and guidance on how to quit.

The researchers analysed common themes across the Instagram images and found that over 70% contained e-juices and devices, which contain higher nicotine concentrations and are popular among e-cigarette beginners. The data shared by the vaping influencers revealed that a lot of their followers were underage (between the ages of 13-17 years old).

Vassey concluded: “We’re hoping the findings will inform public health regulators about the most popular channels used by vaping influencers to promote vaping content among the underage population in order to help counter e-cigarette marketing and slow vaping proliferation among youth, this study could also contribute to providing direction for future federal and local public health anti-vaping intervention campaigns.”

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