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WARNING: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.

Culture Shock: How Vaping Influences Pop Culture and Social Norms

Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik never imagined how popular e-cigarettes would become when he invented them in 2003. Even more shocking is the way that his invention, which was originally designed as a healthier alternative to cigarettes, has been broadcast to the mass market.

In an interview with Imperial Brands Science, Lik stated that “vapes are designed for and marketed to adults who are adjusting to giving up cigarettes.”1A. Frood, “Interview with Hon Lik: original inventor of the e-cigarette,” Imperial Brands Science, 25-Aug-2020. [Online]. Available: https://imperialbrandsscience.com/blog/interview-with-hon-lik-original-inventor-of-the-e-cigarette/ Although Lik dreamt of a world where e-cigarettes help adult smokers kick the habit for good, his invention has gained a life of its own. Now, smokers, vapers, and non-vapers alike are bombarded by imagery relating to both cigarettes and e-cigarettes. 

Far from being presented as a healthier alternative, e-cigarettes are marketed as a stylish, socially acceptable form of expression, especially among young people. Films, fashion shows, and TV programs are just a few of the pop culture platforms that are partially to blame for the meteoric rise of e-cigarettes in pop culture and social norms. 

Why Does Tobacco Matter? 

Tobacco and e-cigarettes are inextricably linked. 

Marketers might present e-cigarettes as a healthier alternative to cigarettes, but the truth is that the basic ideas are the same. Both contain a highly addictive substance, both support multi-billion-dollar industries, and both have transitioned away from being purely functional to becoming fashion accessories. 

Research proves that cigarette use triggers the uptake of e-cigarettes among adolescents. One study found that adolescents and young adults (aged 14-30) who have used e-cigarettes are 3.6 times more likely to report using cigarettes at follow-up analysis2S. Soneji, J. L. Barrington-Trimis, T. A. Wills, et al., “Association Between Initial Use of e-Cigarettes and Subsequent Cigarette Smoking Among Adolescents and Young Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” JAMA Pediatr., vol. 171, no. 8, pp. 788–797, Aug. 2017. [Online]. Available: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5656237/ compared to those who have never used e-cigarettes. 

Vaping On the Big Screen

As far back as the 1940s, Americans saw depictions of smoking in film-noir classics such as Sunset Blvd., The Maltese Falcon, and Double Indemnity. The trend continues to this day, albeit with much more moral judgment. 

Cigarettes are a Big Screen staple, so it is no surprise that e-cigarettes have made their way to the box office. One of the earliest depictions of e-cigarettes in film was in The Tourist (2010), where Johnny Depp’s character uses an e-cig on a train. 

The domino effect tumbled into action. Although it is not confirmed, it is believed that a Canadian e-cigarette company paid for the female lead Milla Jovovich to use its e-cigarettes in the film Cymbeline. 

Since then, vape brands have steadily continued to market their products in films. In Drive Hard (2014), John Cusack’s character cleans, preps, and uses an e-cigarette in multiple scenes. In the comedy film Dirty Grandpa (2016), Zac Efron’s character vapes alongside other party-goers. In I Care a Lot (2020), Rosamund Pike’s character uses an e-cigarette to alleviate stress. 

Researchers from Nottingham Trent University analyzed 26 studies that reported on the link between exposure to smoking or vaping in films and uptake in adolescents. They found that children exposed to high levels of vaping were 30% more likely to become vapers 3Exposure to smoking and vaping in films increases uptake in young people – new study,” Nottingham Trent University, 25 May 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.ntu.ac.uk/about-us/news/news-articles/2022/05/exposure-to-smoking-and-vaping-in-films-increases-uptake-in-young-people-new-study/, and children exposed to high levels of smoking imagery were around 40% more likely to become smokers. 

These statistics show that vape imagery is only slightly better than cigarette imagery. However, most films use both rather than one or the other. As a result, the problem has almost doubled, rather than halved. 

Vaping On the Small Screen 

But what about the small screen? 

When it comes to shaping pop culture and establishing social norms, television programs are just as culpable as the cinema. 

One group of researchers took a longitudinal sample of subjects ages 15-21 and assessed the relation between exposure to tobacco imagery in episodic content and future initiation of combustible tobacco and e-cigarette use. 

It concluded that there is a “dose-response relationship between exposure to tobacco and vaping initiation, wherein the higher the exposure, the greater the odds of subsequent initiation.”4M. Bennett, E. C. Hair, M. Liu, L. Pitzer, J. M. Rath, and D. M. Vallone, “Exposure to tobacco content in episodic programs and tobacco and E-cigarette initiation,” Prev Med, vol. 139, p. 106169, Oct. 2020. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2020.106169. [Online]. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32750386/ Interestingly, this study found “no significant association between exposure to tobacco imagery and smoking initiation”, which clashes with the research on cigarette imagery in films.  

A 2020 report by Truth Initiative found that nearly three-quarters (73%) of the top 15 most popular programs with 15- to 24-year-olds depict tobacco products or feature characters who smoke5Truth Initiative, ‘While You Were Streaming: Straight To Vape,’ Truth Initiative, Aug. 2020. [Online]. Available: https://truthinitiative.org/sites/default/files/media/files/2020/08/While-You-Were-Streaming-Straight-To-Vape-FINAL.pdf. By enabling the use of e-cigarettes in TV shows, these programs are “exposing more than 27 million young people to tobacco.” 

Stranger Things is one of these TV shows. It has over 140,700,000 watches, topping the charts as the second most popular show on Netflix. According to a study conducted by Statista, 31% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 watched every episode of Stranger Things6Statista, ‘Stranger Things viewership in the U.S. by age 2017.’ [Online]. Available: https://www.statista.com/statistics/741810/stranger-things-viewership-usa-by-age/.

When we talk about Netflix and other streaming platforms, we have to mention the relatively modern phenomenon of binge-watching. A 2020 survey by Statista shows how common binge-watching is among different age groups7Statista, ‘Binge viewing penetration rate in the U.S.’ [Online]. Available: https://www.statista.com/statistics/289559/binge-viewing-penetration-rate-us/

These figures show how many respondents frequently binge-watched TV shows or films in a series in one sitting.

  • 60% of respondents between the ages of 13 and 17 years old
  • 69% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 years old 
  • 70% of respondents between the ages of 30 and 44 years old

There is ample research to confirm that exposure to tobacco imagery increases uptake, but what about binge-watching? This type of viewership could increase the already devastating impact of vape marketing in TV shows and other mass media. From a marketing perspective, binge-watchers are an untapped market of potential smokers and vapers. 

Impact of COVID-19 

The COVID-19 pandemic created a unique set of conditions. Schools closed, jobs were temporarily placed on hold, and outside entertainment became a thing of the past. People of all ages began relying on mass media as their sole source of entertainment, giving the streaming entertainment industry a massive boost.   

In March 2020, Americans received their first stay-at-home order. By the end of 2020, revenue for the home and mobile entertainment market in the U.S. reached $30 billion8Motion Picture Association, ‘2020 THEME Report,’ Motion Picture Association, Mar. 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.motionpictures.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/MPA-2020-THEME-Report.pdf, a 21% increase compared to the previous year. 

A study from the CDC Foundation and Truth Initiative found that e-cigarette unit sales increased by 46.6% from January 2020 to December 20229CDC, ‘Title of the Article,’ Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol. 72, no. 25, Date of Publication. [Online]. Available: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/72/wr/mm7225a1.htm. The number of e-cigarette brands also increased from 184 to 269, which is 46.2%. These statistics align with the pandemic, creating a tentative link between depictions of vaping and real-life sales. 

Conspicuous Consumption & E-Cigarettes

Marketers embed cigarettes and e-cigarettes into mainstream media and pop culture to evoke the conspicuous consumption effect. In 1899, Thorstein Veblen criticized conspicuous consumption in his seminal work, The Theory of the Leisure Class10T. Veblen, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” Columbia Law School. [Online]. Available: https://moglen.law.columbia.edu/LCS/theoryleisureclass.pdf. He argues that wealthy people consume highly conspicuous goods and services to advertise their wealth and boost their status in society. 

This phenomenon has been well-documented. One study analyzed perceptions of e-cigarettes among adolescents, concluding that “some young people may perceive e-cigarettes as a form of conspicuous consumption, which they associated with social status and identity.”11Thomas Stubbs, Samantha Thomas, Hannah Pitt, Mike Daube, “Do health halos and conspicuous consumption influence the appeal and risk perceptions of e-cigarettes among young Cambodian men?”, Epub 2021 Jan 27. [Online]. Available: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33504583/

In the world of vapes, disposables are a symbol of consumerism. The single-use, throwaway nature of these e-cigarettes sends a clear message: people who use disposables have disposable income. This transparent, gaudy display of wealth has become a fashion accessory. Much like this season’s new belt, boot, or bag, the newest disposable vape is a must-have addition to any outfit. 

E-Cigarettes As Fashion Accessories

Vape couture has its origins in cigarettes. In the 1990s, cigarettes were synonymous with the heroin chic style that was seen in fashion ads, TV shows, films, and marketing ads. 

In recent years, vape couture emerged as a tongue-in-cheek term to describe the insidious way that e-cigarettes made their way into the fashion industry. What cigarettes were to heroin chic in the 1990s, e-cigarettes are to the modern slant on the trend. 

Rising awareness about the health implications of cigarettes has almost eliminated them from marketing campaigns. Luckily, e-cigarettes were quick to fill the gap. 

In 2016, e-cigarettes officially broke into the fashion market at Men’s Fashion Week in New York. Designers adorned their models with sleek, chrome e-cigarettes from Innokin. This solidified the idea that e-cigarettes can be synonymous with style, paving the way for a fleet of fashion campaigns that leverage the social status of e-cigarettes. 

Modern e-cigarettes have diverged from the original pop culture landmark of the sleek, slim Innokin. They have far more playful, fun exteriors, which makes them appeal to a younger audience. 

Among students who reported current e-cigarette use in the 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey12CDC, ‘Title of the Article,’ Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol. 72, no. 44, Date of Publication. [Online]. Available: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/72/wr/mm7244a1.htm, disposables were the most popular device type (60.7%), followed by prefilled or refillable pods in cartridges (16.1%), and lastly tanks or mod systems (5.9%).

Let’s take a look at Elf Bar. 

The same survey found that Elf Bar was the most commonly reported brand (56.7%) among students who currently use e-cigarettes. The popular Elf Bar Pi7000 is shaped and designed like a pouch and is available in a number of bold colors that match the flavor of the e-liquid.

The pouch design suggests that vapers need to simply squeeze the exterior to get their much-needed nicotine hit. The matching colors (blue for Fresh Berry Sorbet, orange for Mango Peach Watermelon, and pink for Watermelon Ice) enable instant visual recognition and decision-making. The entire design is centered around ease, simplicity, and the idea that vapers can access the e-liquid as quickly as possible. 

If we observe the conspicuous consumption theory, we can see that disposables are designed to give the user access to their status symbol immediately. Not only does the draw-activated mechanism correspond to this theory, but so does the pouch design. 

What Young People Think About E-Cigarettes

In 2019, the American Society of Clinical Oncology released a National Cancer Opinion Survey13American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), ‘National Survey Reveals One in Five Young Adults Regularly Uses E-cigarettes,’ [Online]. Available: https://old-prod.asco.org/about-asco/press-center/news-releases/national-survey-reveals-one-five-young-adults-regularly-uses-e that analyzed how Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and the Silent Generation perceive e-cigarettes. 

The findings are stark, especially for young people. 

  • Nearly 3 in 10 young adults believe flavored e-cigarettes are less damaging than non-flavored ones
  • Nearly 1 in 4 young adults believe e-cigarettes are harmless and not addictive

Gen Zers, who are the first age group to have grown up with the internet, are very susceptible to misleading e-cigarette marketing. They are more than two times as likely than the Silent Generation to believe that e-cigarettes are harmless.

Our Thoughts

As time passed and medical science progressed, longitudinal studies revealed how harmful cigarettes are to the human body. E-cigarettes emerged at just the right moment. They filled the marketing gap left behind by cigarettes, which were becoming an increasingly frowned-upon staple in pop culture. 

Disposables are intrinsically aligned with the culture of consumerism. In a world where more is more, draw-activated e-cigarettes are the perfect vessel for marketing. Rounded edges, shiny surfaces, and vibrant pastel colors are worlds away from Marlboro Light cigarettes, but the inner workings are the same. Even without the 69 known carcinogens in cigarettes, e-cigarettes still aim to get the user hooked on nicotine. 

Given the relative benefits of vaping vs. smoking and the overwhelming lack of longitudinal research into e-cigarettes, Big Vape can easily discount concerns about vaping in pop culture. It will continue to launch marketing campaigns in popular TV shows, streaming platforms, and even fashion runways. Unsurprisingly, the most popular e-cigarette marketing platforms and shows are dominated by children and young people. 

Unless another heroin chic accessory enters the market to replace disposable vapes, we expect to see more representations of e-cigarettes in pop culture.

Sources

Viki Howlett
Viki Howlett
Viki Howlett, a skilled writer with a decade of vaping experience, enriches our website with engaging, well-researched articles, offering readers valuable insights and trustworthy reviews on vaping products and trends.
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