The University of Southern California announced receipt of a $17.8 million dollar federal grant to study tobacco marketing and addiction. The USC Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science (TCORS) researchers, part of USC’s Keck School of Medicine, will focus predominantly on how younger generations use and are affected by electronic nicotine products. Researchers will also target vape and e-cigarette ads for study, as companies shift heavily toward social media marketing campaigns.
According to a report by EurekAlert, researchers will concentrate on four particular areas:
- Youth-oriented social media marketing and conversation about tobacco products.
- Effects of e-cigarette product marketing at vape shops on customers.
- A survey of vaping and smoking in 6,400 Southern California teens and young adults from age 14 to 24.
- Laboratory studies of which types of e-cigarettes are appealing and addictive to young people and desirable for adults interested in quitting smoking.
The FDA Center for Tobacco Products supplied USC with the grant, administered by the National Cancer Institute. Federal agencies are looking to learn more about addictive properties of ENDS. ENDS are devices that bypass burning leaf tobacco by instead using nicotine extracted from tobacco in a vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol base. The strongest in concentration, yet most user-friendly consumer e-cigarettes available right now are pod vapes, such as the Juul.
Pod vapes are also the most popular ENDS on the global market, currently. Other e-cigarette devices and vape mods help curb nicotine addiction, but can be expensive or cumbersome to maintain. Pod vape effects, however, are arguably the closest to smoking a combustible cigarette. They are simple and easy to pick up and use. Nicotine salt juice, like in pod vape recipes, only requires a few puffs for the same effect as a full tobacco cigarette. They also typically provide a ‘throat hit’ similar to smoking. These factors make the transition from cigarettes to vaping easy on adults looking to quit.
The adult smoker is not where the FDA is concerned, however. For all their popularity, and their ease of use, pod vapes now pose a substantial risk to the youth market. These devices are easy to hide. Pods come in a variety of (often sweet) flavors. These appeals have FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb concerned about their growing use among teenagers. USC’s funded study will hopefully give federal authorities the knowledge needed to better regulate the marketplace. But, researchers need also to understand how electronic cigarettes find their way into the hands of kids in the first place. After all, unless they are enticed to take a puff at all, kids would not become addicted. How do they know about vapes to begin with?
In addition to biomedical effects, the government wants TCORS to study e-cigarette ads. Marketing methods, campaigns, and psycho-social effects of e-cig advertising are an important piece of the ‘epidemic’ puzzle. Social media is highly pervasive in our everyday lives. Until recently, too, it has been seen as fairly innocuous for even young people. In the wake of serious scrutiny and security concerns over social media, however, federal authorities more closely monitor their impact on our culture. E-cigarette ads are evermore commonplace on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds.
Young people, as probably seems obvious now, are especially susceptible to the whims and wills of digital trends, advertising efforts, and subliminal messaging found littered across the social media landscape. Companies pay for celebrity endorsements, promoted posts, and other viral marketing techniques. Advertising has probably never been easier, especially to younger (and more impressionable) demographics.
That said, e-cigarette companies are no strangers to viral marketing tactics. Kandypens, for example, has a signature line of ‘luxury’ Amber Rose vape pens, whatever luxury means for an industry of devices designated to help smokers quit. Rose is an American model and actress, particularly popular on Instagram. Upon visiting the Kandypens site, a television commercial-like ad featuring Rose autoplays across the top, huge and pronounced. The FDA attributes viral, social media marketing efforts as an integral part of the current ‘teen vaping epidemic.’
Why Step In Now?
From the behavioral and biomedical research conducted during the 5-years study, FDA and Health officials hope to have the necessary science to formulate a better regulatory framework for electronic cigarettes. Much of the science, while somewhat inconclusive and not longitudinal, supports the notion that vape products are up to 95% better for the body than combustible cigarettes.
The counter, naturally, is that not using nicotine products (or electronic ‘tobacco products,’ as they are so classified by US authorities) is best overall. Abstinence is, of course ideal, and would drastically reduce the number of preventable deaths in the US. As youth grow up in increasingly more informative times, with knowledge literally at their fingertips, they are learning to avoid things like cigarettes earlier and with more discipline and resolve. Advertising efforts have to rise to meet the occasion of the intellectual, discerning young consumer.
The FDA sees potential issues in how new addictive products are marketed, compared with their organic predecessors. Authorities want to step in more quickly than in decades past to quell potential misleading or overly influential marketing endeavors, hoping to keep youth from these still-harmful habits.