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Behind the Vapor: Vape Marketing Strategies & Their Impact On Youth

In the last few years, e-cigarette marketing has shifted from fact-focused representations of hardware to aspirational, colorful content. The introduction of bold colors, cool names, and celebrity endorsements has reconstructed the concept of e-cigarettes in a way that appeals to young people.

Concerns over youth uptake of e-cigarettes are ever-present, but just how realistic are these worries? And how does advertising impact the figures? 

Youth Uptake of E-Cigarettes: The Facts

The 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey1C. for T. Products, “Results from the Annual National Youth Tobacco Survey,” FDA, Nov. 2023, Available: https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/youth-and-tobacco/results-annual-national-youth-tobacco-survey#Findings%20on%20Youth%20Use%20for%20E-Cigarette%20Products (NYTS) measured youth uptake of tobacco products between March and June 2023. 

  • More than 2.1 million youth currently use e-cigarettes
  • 10% (1.56 million) of high school students and 4.6% (550,000) of middle school students reported current use of e-cigarettes
  • More than 1 in 4 (25.2%) of current youth e-cigarette users use an e-cigarette product every day
  • The most commonly reported brands were Elf Bar (56.7%), Esco Bars (21.6%), Vuse (20.7%), JUUL (16.5%), and Mr Frog (13.6%) 

Of course, there were questions about one of the biggest concerns for young people, flavored e-cigarettes. 

  • Nearly 9 out of 10 young people who use cigarettes (89.4%) prefer flavored e-cigarettes
  • Fruit flavors are the most popular, followed by candy, desserts, or other sweets, mint, and menthol
  • Over half (57.9%) of students currently using e-cigarettes reported using flavors with ‘ice’ or ‘iced’ in the name

Let’s compare these findings with the 2022 National Youth Tobacco Survey2CDC, “More than 2.5 million youth reported e-cigarette use in 2022,” CDC, Oct. 06, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2022/p1007-e-cigarette-use.html

  • From 2022-2023, the number of U.S. high school students using e-cigarettes dropped from 14.1% to 10%
  • From 2022-2023, the number of middle school students using e-cigarettes increased from 3.3% to 4.6%

Truth Initiative said that the survey “marks a notable achievement in the fight against youth tobacco use.”3“Significant Decline in E-cigarette Use Among High School Students Indicates Progress, Yet Challenges Persist in Youth Tobacco Prevention,” truthinitiative.org. https://truthinitiative.org/press/press-release/significant-decline-e-cigarette-use-among-high-school-students-indicates 540,000 fewer high school students currently use e-cigarettes, but there are still concerns about the growing number of middle school students who have started using vape products. 

Truth Initiative is quick to point out that e-cigarettes are still the most commonly used tobacco product among all youth since 2014, and that the 2023 data “further demonstrates the allure of flavors” among young people. 

“It’s encouraging to see this substantial decline in e-cigarette use among high schoolers within the past year, which is a win for public health,”4O. of the Commissioner, “National Survey Shows Drop in E-Cigarette Use Among High School Students,” FDA, Nov. 02, 2023. https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/national-survey-shows-drop-e-cigarette-use-among-high-school-students#:~:text=The%20findings%2C%20which%20were%20collected said Brian King, Director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. “But we can’t rest on our laurels. There’s more work to be done to build on this progress.” 

What Role Do Advertisements Play in Youth Uptake of E-Cigarettes? 

Advertisements are so embedded in day-to-day lives that we rarely pause and think about the implications of so much subliminal messaging. This is perfect for Big Vape, which markets its products to American citizens from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to sleep.

Countless studies have shown just how pervasive e-cigarette advertisements are among young people. One study analyzed self-reported data from young people in Canada, England, and the U.S.5Y. J. Cho, J. F. Thrasher, J. L. Reid, S. Hitchman, and D. Hammond, “Youth self-reported exposure to and perceptions of vaping advertisements: Findings from the 2017 International Tobacco Control Youth Tobacco and Vaping Survey,” Preventive Medicine, vol. 126, p. 105775, Sep. 2019, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2019.105775

  • Most young people reported some vaping product ad exposure in the past 30 days (Canada = 36%, England = 38%, U.S. = 43%)
  • Ad exposure through websites or social media did not differ greatly by country (Canada = 38%, England =40%, U.S. = 41%) 
  • Compared to those who never smoked or used vaping products, youths who reported smoking and/or vaping were more likely to report ad exposure through those channels 

Worryingly, around a third of young people in Canada, England, and the U.S. are consistently exposed to e-cigarette adverts. Furthermore, the data suggests that young people who already smoke and/or vape are targeted with relevant advertisements on social media.  

Are Flavored E-Cigarettes Marketed to Young People? 

The use of intriguing or recognizable flavors, fun names, and bright colors is innately attractive to young people. In fact, adolescents are more likely to report interest in trying an e-cigarette offered by a friend if it is menthol or fruit flavored6J. K. Pepper, K. M. Ribisl, and N. T. Brewer, “Adolescents’ interest in trying flavoured e-cigarettes,” Tobacco Control, vol. 25, no. Suppl 2, pp. ii62–ii66, Sep. 2016, doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2016-053174

In one survey, a random sample of 255 youths from across California were shown eight ads in a random order7“Youth say ads for flavored e-liquids are for them,” Addictive Behaviors, vol. 91, pp. 164–170, Apr. 2019, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2018.08.029. The ads included fruit, dessert, alcohol, and coffee-flavored e-liquids. The participants were asked which age group the adverts targeted. 

  • 93.7% of participants said the Cupcake Man flavor ad was targeted at people younger than themselves
  • Most said that the no-flavor ad was targeted at people much older than themselves
  • Over half said that ads for Smoothie, Cherry, Vanilla Cupcake, and Caramel Cappuccino flavors targeted their age group

Despite being able to recognize the predatory nature of e-cigarette marketing that focuses on fun flavors, names, and designs, young people are not immune to the massive amounts of subliminal advertising on TV, social media, and the internet.

E-Cigarette Marketing On the Internet

There are mounting concerns that the ‘Online Generation’, better known as Gen Zers, are particularly susceptible to online e-cigarette advertisements. These digital natives grew up in a world where the internet was already a part of daily life, which raises questions as to whether they can discern fact from fiction in online advertisements.

To measure the impact of e-cigarette advertisements on young Gen Zers, a group of researchers used an advertising firm to collect all online banner/video advertisements in the U.S. and Canada from April 2012 to April 20138A. Richardson, O. Ganz, and D. Vallone, “Tobacco on the web: surveillance and characterisation of online tobacco and e-cigarette advertising,” Tobacco Control, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 341–347, Feb. 2014, doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2013-051246

Here are the findings. 

  • The e-cigarette and tobacco industries spent almost $2 million on online product advertisements 
  • Certain brands advertised on websites that contained up to 35% of youths as their audience 
  • There was almost no advertising on traditional cigarettes

While advertisements for traditional cigarettes fade into obscurity, e-cigarettes continue to be widely publicized across the internet. As far back as 2012, e-cigarette advertisers targeted online spaces that were frequented by young people. This begs the question, why have lawmakers allowed online e-cigarette advertising to go unrestricted for so long? 

E-Cigarette Marketing On Social Media 

Social apps such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are ideal platforms for brands. They can use data to create and distribute targeted advertisements, engage with niche audiences, and even pay social media influencers to endorse their products.

One focus group asked young people how they perceived influencers selling e-cigarettes on social media9M. J. Smith and S. Hilton, “Youth’s exposure to and engagement with e-cigarette marketing on social media: a UK focus group study,” ProQuest, vol. 13, no. 8, p. e071270, 2023, doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2022-071270. Some of the participants said that influencers who advertise e-cigarettes portray them as “cool” and “fashionable” to entice viewers. 

A separate study reviewed 55 influencers from across the globe who collaborated with over 600 e-cigarette brands in 2020. It found that 75% of influencers did not restrict youth access to their promotional e-cigarette content on Instagram10J. Vassey et al., “E-cigarette brands and social media influencers on Instagram: a social network analysis,” Tobacco Control, vol. 32, no. e2, Feb. 2022, doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2021-057053

Brands can present their e-cigarettes as aspirational products and create a global appeal by leveraging the power of celebrity endorsements. It has long been accepted that the use of celebrities in advertisements can have a positive influence on credibility, message recall, memory, and likeability with regard to advertisements, and ultimately on purchase intentions11C. Pornpitakpan, “The Effect of Celebrity Endorsers’ Perceived Credibility on Product Purchase Intention,” Journal of International Consumer Marketing, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 55–74, Apr. 2004, doi: https://doi.org/10.1300/j046v16n02_04.

In 2019, UK TV personality Olivia Attwood attended a GoVype event and was photographed using one of the brand’s products. As part of the same campaign, UK singer Lily Allen also posed with one of the pens. 

GoVype posted both photos on its Instagram page. This combination of seemingly candid and staged photos is not uncommon, especially for vape brands that want to normalize their products. It is a form of subversive advertising that targets young, susceptible people who want to stay on top of the latest trends. 

E-Cigarette Marketing On TV 

According to data from ad-tracking firm iSpot.tv, the e-cigarette industry spent $57 million on TV ads in 201912“TV Networks Take Down Juul and Other E-Cigarette Ads,” The New York Times, Sep. 19, 2019. Available: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/18/business/juul-vaping-ads-cbs.html alone. Juul spent the most, followed by Vuse, Blue Cigs, and Freeboxmod.com. By September of 2019, Juul had spent more than $30 million on adverts, which amounts to nearly 9,100 airings.  

In an overarching review of the tactics in e-cigarette marketing on TV, researchers “identified 16 major influences associated with youth vaping”13L. L. Struik, S. Dow-Fleisner, M. Belliveau, D. Thompson, and R. Janke, “Tactics for drawing youth to vaping: A content analysis of e-cigarette advertisements ,” Journal of Medical Internet Research, vol. 22, no. 8, Mar. 2020, doi: https://doi.org/10.2196/18943 which can be separated into four categories, personal, relational, environmental, and product-related. 

Researchers note that prevention campaigns tend to focus on the dangers of vaping, whilst side-stepping the reasons why young people start using e-cigarettes in the first place. Two of the most prominent reasons for youth uptake are the “relational aspects of vaping and product-related benefits, such as a positive sensory experience.” 

Here are a few other findings. 

  • Many ads present vaping as something new to incite curiosity 
  • Many ads present e-cigarette use as going against the norm to suggest that the products are innovative
  • Many ads play into the sensation-seeking needs of adolescents, who engage in sensation-seeking more than any other developmental stage

Researchers conclude that future research should explore the development and impact of regulations that consider the personal, relational, environmental, and product influences that are most meaningful for youth. Subsequently, these findings should inform advertising standards. 

Are E-Cigarette Adverts On TV Effective?

Researchers have been assessing the impact of TV marketing on young people since as far back as 2014. In one study from this year, researchers surveyed 5,020 young people from ages 13-1714J. C. Duke, J. A. Allen, M. E. Eggers, J. Nonnemaker, and M. C. Farrelly, “Exploring Differences in Youth Perceptions of the Effectiveness of Electronic Cigarette Television Advertisements,” Nicotine & Tobacco Research, vol. 18, no. 5, pp. 1382–1386, Dec. 2015, doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/ntr/ntv264. They showed subjects e-cigarette advertisements and measured the perceived effectiveness (PE) after exposure. 

The results show that “after ad exposure, youth who have never used e-cigarettes previously perceive e-cigarettes as cooler, more fun, healthier, and more enjoyable.” It concluded that “restricting televised e-cigarette advertising may reduce e-cigarette initiation among youth.” 

E-Cigarettes in Multimedia: The Bigger Picture

One study sourced data from the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey to analyze 22,007 U.S. middle and high school students. It used multivariate logistic regression models to assess the relationship between e-cigarette marketing (including internet, print, retail, and TV/movies) and current/ever use of e-cigarettes15D. S. Mantey, M. R. Cooper, S. L. Clendennen, K. E. Pasch, and C. L. Perry, “E-Cigarette Marketing Exposure Is Associated With E-Cigarette Use Among US Youth,” Journal of Adolescent Health, vol. 58, no. 6, pp. 686–690, Jun. 2016, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2016.03.003.

Here are the findings.

  • Exposure to each type of e-cigarette marketing was significantly associated with an increased likelihood of ever and current use of e-cigarettes
  • Exposure to each type of e-cigarette marketing was also associated with susceptibility to the use of e-cigarettes among current nonusers
  • In multivariate models, as the number of channels of e-cigarette marketing exposure increased, so did the likelihood of use and susceptibility to use of e-cigarettes

These statistics paint a bleak picture of the future of vaping. They suggest that as long as Big Vape is allowed to market on media platforms, young people will continue to use e-cigarettes. 

E-Cigarette Marketing Restrictions

Very few marketing restrictions are placed on e-cigarettes in the U.S. 

The biggest roadblock in the way of e-cigarette marketing in the U.S. is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA established Premarket Tobacco Product Applications (PMTAs) for vape brands that want to introduce their products to the market. In effect, manufacturers are banned from introducing or advertising their products until the FDA has approved the PMTA. 

As of today, the FDA has only accepted PMTAs for 23 e-cigarette products. The organization has come under attack for its lackluster attempts to eliminate illegal e-cigarettes from the market. In the U.S., hundreds of e-cigarette brands are still operating illegally and marketing vape products on multiple platforms. 

In response to the growing number of youth-targeted ads on TV, several companies have decided to no longer accept e-cigarette ads. In 2019, WarnerMedia, CBS, and Viacom made headlines16T. Baysinger, “E-Cigarette Brands Spent $57 Million on TV Ads This Year, Including 54% to Networks That Now Reject Them,” Sep. 19, 2019. https://www.thewrap.com/e-cigarette-brands-spent-57-million-on-tv-ads-this-year-including-54-to-networks-that-now-reject-them/ when the companies collectively decided to reject any type of e-cigarette adverts. This decision was backed by concerns over youth vaping. 

Despite this attempt to curtail ads, e-cigarette marketing is still an ongoing source of revenue for the vape industry. 

Traditional Tobacco Marketing Restrictions 

The health implications of smoking cigarettes have been widely publicized, leaving no room to doubt just how bad tobacco is for our health. As a result, tobacco marketing is restricted on a Federal and State level. 

Here are a few key Federal laws. 

  • Tobacco advertising is prohibited through television and restricted in magazines and on billboards
  • The marketing, licensing, distributing, or selling of imported cigarettes and smokeless tobacco is prohibited
  • The distribution of free samples of tobacco products is prohibited

Here are a few key State laws. 

  • California restricts tobacco advertising in all State-owned buildings and billboard advertising within 1,000 feet of any K-12 public school or playboard
  • Illinois prohibits retailers, distributors, and manufacturers of e-cigarettes from advertising in certain ways 
  • Texas prohibits tobacco advertising within 1,000 feet of a church, public, or private school and requires purchasers of tobacco advertising to pay a fee of 10% of the gross sales price of any advertisements 

The rules that govern tobacco advertisements are much stricter than those that cover e-cigarette marketing. Critics speculate that this could be due to the extensive research into the health implications of traditional cigarettes. In contrast, e-cigarettes are a relatively new product. The long-term health implications aren’t as clear, leading to more lax advertisement rules. 

Should We Worry About Youth Uptake of E-Cigarettes?

According to U.S. Senators and legislators, e-cigarettes pose one of the biggest threats to the next generation. Senator Dick Durbin is one of the most outspoken advocates against vaping, and his main focus is to stop young people from picking up e-cigarettes. 

“The tobacco companies make big investments in these vape companies, selling them as new marketable products as if they are safe,”17“Durbin To FDA: Follow The Law, Pull Unauthorized E-Cigarettes From The Market Immediately To Protect America’s Children | U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois,” www.durbin.senate.gov. https://www.durbin.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/durbin-to-fda-follow-the-law-pull-unauthorized-e-cigarettes-from-the-market-immediately-to-protect-americas-children Durbin said in a speech on the Senate floor. “They are creating addictions among children by advertising and selling fruit-flavored, bubblegum-flavored vaping devices.” 

Durbin is a staunch critic of the FDA, which he believes is purposely delaying its review of PMTAs. Durbin conducted his own study and found that, during the FDA’s delay in reviewing PMTAs, more than 750,000 children started using e-cigarettes18“Durbin Investigation Finds More Than 750,000 Kids Have Picked Up Vaping Since FDA’s Missed Deadline To Regulate E-Cigarettes | U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois,” www.durbin.senate.gov. https://www.durbin.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/durbin-investigation-finds-more-than-750000-kids-have-picked-up-vaping-since-fdas-missed-deadline-to-regulate-e-cigarettes

However, Durbin does not represent all the lawmakers in the U.S. Financial gain, personal benefits, and voter approval are enough to motivate some lawmakers to block anti-vape bills and regulations.

Final Thoughts 

There is no doubt that vape advertisements are targeting young people. Brands represent e-cigarettes as fashionable, aspirational, and novel through a combination of TV advertisements, social media branding, celebrity endorsements, online banners, and various other multimedia platforms. 

Big Vape has created a challenging situation for young people. Everywhere they turn, they are subject to overt e-cigarette marketing in the form of celebrity endorsements, Instagram reels, and TV adverts, as well as covert marketing tactics including supposedly candid celebrity photos and aspirational messages. 

To tackle youth uptake of e-cigarettes, campaign groups and lawmakers need to understand the reasons why young people begin vaping. Many campaigns focus on the health implications of vaping but fail to address the underlying reasons why e-cigarette advertisements appeal to young people.


Lexi Burgess
Lexi Burgess
I keep my ear to the ground to report on Vaping, emerging health research, and new vape legislation. When the ever-changing landscape of the vape industry isn’t on my mind, I play badminton and read old horror novels.
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