E-Cigarettes Commonly Marketed on Twitter

Twitter feeds filled with tweets advertising electronic cigarettes and vaping pens

(RxWiki News) Advertising for cigarettes and other tobacco products has been banned in mass media. Yet e-cigarettes are often advertised on traditional media platforms like print, television and radio.

Researchers recently found that e-cigarettes also are being heavily marketed on Twitter.

According to these researchers, the marketing of e-cigarettes through social media could entice some non-smokers to start smoking.

"Seek medical help for tobacco addiction."

E-cigarettes are regularly being advertised on social media sites, such as Twitter, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In a press statement, Jidong Huang, PhD, senior research scientist at UIC’s Institute for Health Research and Policy and lead study author, said that “there’s this whole wild west of social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — and the FDA has no way to track what’s happening in those platforms.”

Dr. Huang and his team collected tweets (140 character text messages) and metadata (data that describes and gives information about other data) related to e-cigarettes during a two-month study period in 2012 from the social media site Twitter.

Since its launch in 2006, Twitter has gained in popularity, with over 200 million active monthly users producing more than 500 million tweets and 2.1 billion Twitter search engine inquiries daily.

The researchers collected more than 70,000 tweets linked to e-cigarettes by using statistical data and keyword searches.

Among the 70,000 tweets reviewed, nearly 90 percent were commercial (business-based) tweets, and the other 10 percent were organic (individual consumer) tweets. A total of 94 percent of the commercial tweets regarding e-cigarettes included website links to purchase products, while only 11 percent of the organic tweets had such links.

Additionally, 11 percent of the commercial tweets mentioned smoking cessation, while more than one third were offers for discounts and coupons to purchase e-cigarette products.

“Although only 11 percent of commercial tweets referenced smoking cessation, the absolute number is significant," Dr. Huang said, "if considered over longer timeframes than the two months of the study.”

However, at this time, there is only limited study data related to e-cigarettes' long-term health impact, usefulness in smoking cessation, or role as a pathway to other tobacco product use.

"We know very little about what these products are made of and what kind of chemicals are in the e-juice," Dr. Huang said.

“If kids or youth search for ‘vaping pen’ or ‘e-cig’ on Twitter, they will get links to commercial sites where they can purchase these items,” he said. “Unlike Facebook and some other platforms where one can set privacy controls, all information on Twitter is accessible to anyone.”

Previous research on this topic revealed a clear amount of rapid growth in both the use of and awareness of e-cigs among young adults and children in recent years. "Isolating and analyzing the impact of e-cigarette marketing on the microblogging platform Twitter is important because Twitter use is widespread and growing rapidly, particularly among young adults and minority populations," Dr. Huang and colleagues wrote.

This study did not look at the specifics of those who were exposed to the tweets, but the researchers noted that users of Twitter tend to be young, with 30 percent of users being between the ages of 18 and 29. Twitter users also tend to be members of minority groups, with 27 percent of users being African American and 28 percent being Latino, compared with only 14 percent being Caucasian.

“Given the substantial youth presence on social media, the marketing of e-cigarettes on those platforms may entice non-smokers — youth in particular — to experiment with and initiate e-cigarette use,” wrote the study’s authors. “These results have direct and important implications for future FDA regulations on e-cigarettes and related products, particularly with respect to marketing restrictions on social media.”

The researchers noted several study limitations, primarily the short timeframe in which the study was conducted. The short two-month window did not allow for the examination of trends over time. Also, the researchers excluded slang words for e-cigarettes, such as ‘vape,’ from the study, which could have changed the amount of data obtained from the organic pool.

Lastly, the researchers believe that more research is needed to better understand how social media marketing affects smokers’ and non-smokers' beliefs and attitudes about e-cigarettes, and ultimately whether it influences product usage.

This study was released online in June in Tobacco Control.

The study was funded by a grant from the National Cancer Institute. The researchers did not disclose any conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
June 27, 2014