Social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Facebook have overwhelmingly positive views of e-cigarettes. This kind of information makes e-cigarette use seem common and socially acceptable.
Traditional tobacco advertising has been banned in Australia for decades. However, the widespread promotion of e-cigarettes on social media has offset some of the positive gains of earlier decades.
Most platforms have content policies that explicitly prohibit the promotion of the use of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. But new research released this week shows that these policies are often violated with little or no consequences.
The use of e-cigarettes by young people, including Australians, is increasing rapidly. So is the evidence that e-cigarettes are harmful to health.
Positive social media messages about e-cigarettes may particularly affect young people, who are the most frequent users of social media. In some cases, the messages even turned out to be blatantly aimed at teenagers.
Research shows that young people who check social media posts about e-cigarettes are more likely to smoke and view them positively. This is true of both e-cigarette ads and user-generated content, where creators effectively do the marketing work for e-cigarette companies.
TikTok emphasizes skill and downplays harm
In our recently published study, we looked at how e-cigarettes are advertised and promoted on TikTok. In February 2022, we analyzed 264 English-language user-generated vape videos and evaluated them against TikTok’s own content policy.
We found that the majority of the videos (98%) portrayed e-cigarettes in a positive light.
More than a quarter of the videos apparently violated TikTok’s content policies by promoting the purchase of vape products.
Few videos contain health warnings. Only 2% of posts mentioned e-cigarette or nicotine addiction.
A handful of posts mentioned public health professionals or commented on e-cigarette regulation. These posts were relatively unpopular, receiving a smaller percentage of views and likes.
Half of the videos mentioned the vape community. These posts were more popular than those that did not mention the shared identity. This could shape norms around e-cigarette use and increase the perception that e-cigarettes are socially acceptable.
Popular posts also included references to vape techniques (such as creating shapes from exhaled aerosols), and early research has shown that teens often cite vape techniques as the reason they started using them. Posts also use humor, which is an effective tool for engaging younger social media users.
Videos that violate content policies often provide detailed information about how and where to buy vape products. This includes providing links to online retailers and other social media accounts.
Promotions such as giveaways and promotional prices are common and are in direct violation of the content policy. Many of the posts also offer product reviews.
So what needs to happen?
We can’t rely on platforms to set and enforce content policies. There are usually no major consequences for breaking social media policies — the platforms decide what happens.
This is a problem because social media platforms have a clear financial incentive not to punish people who violate their policies.
The federal government’s recent tough stance to stamp out e-cigarette use among young people through regulation, enforcement, education, plain packaging and a ban on flavoring is welcome.
However, this does not include a clampdown on e-cigarette advertising, promotion and sponsorship on social media, which is also clearly needed.
The focus needs to be on policy implementation. This must include requiring social media platforms to report on how they ensure compliance with regulations.
Current policies and review processes are insufficient to limit the spread of pro-vaping content on TikTok. This exposes young social media users to the use of e-cigarettes. Regulation of the content and promotion of e-cigarettes needs to be strengthened to prevent future use and harm to young people.