NEW YORK (Reuters ) - A large and growing proportion of US teens are seeing e-cigarette ads in stores, online, on television and in newspapers and magazines, a recent study suggests.
Researchers examined survey data of exposure to tobacco products collected from a nationally representative sample of thousands of middle school and high school students from 2014 to 2016. During that period, the proportion of youth who reported exposure to at least one source of e-cigarette advertising climbed from 69 percent to 78 percent, accounting for more than 20 million teens nationwide.
“Compared to adults, young people are uniquely vulnerable to marketing and advertising messages,” said lead study author Kristy Marynak, a researcher at the Office on Smoking and Health at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
“E-cigarette ads contain many of the same themes and tactics that have previously been shown to lead to conventional cigarette smoking among youth, including romance, freedom, and rebellion,” Marynak said by email. “Studies have shown that exposure to e-cigarette advertising is associated with e-cigarette use among youth, with higher rates of use among those who report more exposure to these ads.”
Big tobacco companies, including Altria Group Inc, Lorillard Tobacco Co and Reynolds American Inc, are all developing e-cigarettes. The battery-powered devices feature a glowing tip and a heating element that turns liquid nicotine and other flavorings into a cloud of vapor that users inhale.
Previous research suggests that advertising can entice teens to experiment with e-cigarettes, and that continued exposure to marketing campaigns can make it harder for them to stop using tobacco products.
In the current study, promotions inside retail stores were the most common type of e-cigarette ads teens viewed, with 68 percent of youth surveyed in 2016 reporting at least some exposure to ads while out shopping.
The next most common source of ad exposure was the Internet, with 41 percent of youth seeing these promotions, followed by television ads at 38 percent and print ads at 24 percent.
Girls were slightly more likely to report seeing e-cigarette ads than boys, and white students were more likely to say they’d been exposed to these promotions than youth from other racial and ethnic groups.
High school students also reported ad exposure more than middle school students, and current users of e-cigarettes or other tobacco products were more likely to say they had seen ads than non-users.
The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how ad exposure might influence whether teens used e-cigarettes or other tobacco products. Researchers also relied on youth to accurately recall and report on any exposure to ads, and lacked data on some potential sources of exposure such as movies and sporting events.
Even so, the results suggest that parents need to start talking with children early on about the dangers of tobacco, Marynak said.
Advertisers may play on teens’ desire to fit in with their peers and their interest in sweet flavors in e-cigarette marketing, said Dr. Alexander Prokhorov, director of the Youth and Family Cancer Prevention Program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Youth place great importance on their self-image as they progress through middle and high school. Being seen as trendy and “cool” by those around them is what they are concerned with the most and having their image constantly exposed through today’s vast social media networks only fuels their need for social popularity.
“An adolescent is much more likely to try an e-liquid if they see a colorful advertisement for say a cotton-candy flavored e-liquid,” Prokhorov, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. “Adults on the other hand will generally be more health- and money-conscious and have more favorable responses to advertisements that make e-cigarettes appear less harmful and less expensive.”