Social media marketing of electronic cigarettes to youth

By Arshima Khan1,2 & Catherine O. Egbe1,3


Youth is a crucial target audience for the tobacco and electronic cigarette industry as it is the key to recruiting new users of these products, thereby ensuring maintenance and growth of the industry’s profits (Agaku, Egbe, & Ayo-Yusuf, 2021). The South African Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill (National Department of Health, 2022), when passed into law, would regulate for the first time, electronic delivery systems (electronic cigarettes) which are increasingly becoming popular in South Africa especially among the youth.

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Recent South African studies by Agaku et al., have revealed that teenagers were the most exposed to electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) advertisement (Agaku, Egbe, & Ayo-Yusuf, 2021). This review explores how and why electronic e-cigarettes are presently being marketed with specific targets at youth and adolescents.

Attractiveness of digital marketing and promotion

Teenagers are particularly susceptible to innovative digital forms of marketing, such as promotion through social media influencers, social media posts and online images and campaigns (Donaldson, et. al., 2022). Instagram analytics revealed that an increasing number of underage followers viewed posts related to e-cigarette usage, flavoured products and nicotine e-juices (Vassey et. al., 2020). Various studies have shown the links between social media marketing campaigns, social media usage and increased rates of smoking initiation in teenagers and young adults (Donaldson, et. al., 2022).

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Link between exposure to social media marketing and e-cigarette use

Social media marketing provides e-cigarette marketers undue access to youth and teenagers, recruiting them into a lifetime of nicotine addiction through the promotion of these products through repeated exposure (Agaku, Egbe, & Ayo-Yusuf, 2021). An experimental study found that repeated increased use of social media was linked with increased willingness and intention to use electronic cigarettes among adolescents and reduced the perceived danger of electronic cigarettes (Vassey, et. al., 2020). Social media advertisements, especially those involving flavours, have been found to be associated with reduced perception of harm by millennials (Struik et. al., 2020).

Regulation of advertisement and marketing of e-cigarettes

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) requires countries to effectively ban advertising, promotions and sponsorship of any tobacco products, recommending regulation of electronic cigarettes (Tobacco Control Laws, 2021). In South Africa, the Tobacco Products Control Act 83 (TPCA) of 1993 bans advertising of tobacco products through television, print medium or internet communications but does not regulate e-cigarettes (National Department of Health, 2022). Many of South Africa’s popular e-cigarette brands and companies manufacturing new nicotine products have a significant online presence, using social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram among other avenues (Agaku et al., 2021).

Advertising and marketing tactics by e-cigarette companies

Targeting young women

E-cigarette brands leverage a chic and exciting lifestyle to sell their products to unsuspecting youth, making use of captivating visuals and the concept of ‘freedom of choice’ to portray their users as confident and energetic. Similar to tobacco advertisements in the past, online e-cigarette advertisements employ women empowerment to sell the narrative of female solidarity and feminism through the use of e-cigarettes and other novel products (Giugni & Tracey, 2021).

Targeting activism and good causes

Using the social and political awareness of today’s youth, e-cigarette brands now co-opt environmental activism and sustainability to attract environmentally conscious youth in a process called ‘greenwashing’ through misleadingly portraying their products as eco-friendly (Heley, Czaplicki, Kennedy, & Moran, 2021). These brands sponsor recycling programs for used pods, while promoting further sales and masking the devastating ecological impact of e-cigarettes on the environment (Heley, Czaplicki, Kennedy, & Moran, 2021).

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Use of social media influencers

Influencer marketing of electronic cigarettes circumvents the restrictions on paid promotions of these products by neglecting to label sponsored content as advertisements. The use of popular personalities holds a unique appeal to teenagers and young adults, for whom online interactions with relatable social media influencers hold a compelling persuasive sway over decisions (Daniel Jr, Crawford Jackson, & Westerman, 2018).

Use of attractive flavours and bright colours

E-cigarette companies also use exotic flavours of e-liquids and brightly coloured designs on the packs as marketing tools, increasing product appeal towards younger audiences (Vargas-Rivera et al., 2021). The efficacy of flavours in enhancing the experience of using e-cigarettes, as well as providing motivation to young users for future usage has been established through research (Vargas-Rivera et al., 2021).

Targeting healthy lifestyles and refuting product harmfulness

The use of fruits and other natural visuals in many of the products, their composition, packaging as well as their advertisements serves to falsely characterize e-cigarettes as organic and natural (Struik et. al., 2020). In addition, mounting evidence suggests that social media discourse promoting diet culture endorse the use of e-cigarettes among high school students and adolescents for weight control and appetite suppression, leading to and encouraging disordered eating (Kechter et al., 2022).

E-cigarette brands use social media to refute scientific claims about how harmful their products are. They use privately run blogs, which host articles making unverifiable claims about the health benefits of e-cigarette use and promoting the use of novel tobacco and nicotine products as ‘harm reduction’ products that has been shown to be a factor in increasing prevalence of e-cigarette usage and initiation among adolescents (Struik et al., 2020).

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In conclusion, e-cigarette companies employ various methods to harness the influence of social media to appeal to youth. Research is required to determine the associations between the use of social media and increasing prevalence of e-cigarette usage especially amongst the youth in South Africa. This would inform stronger regulations of social media usage by e-cigarette companies, including the regulation of paid content by social media influencers. Stronger age verification technology is required to prevent minors’ access to content related to electronic cigarettes (and other novel tobacco and nicotine products) on the internet. Finally, the passing of the draft Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control bill of 2022 will enable the necessary regulation of the use and marketing of e-cigarettes in South Africa.

1Mental health, Alcohol, Substance use & Tobacco Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council
Pretoria, South Africa
2Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
3Department of Public Health, Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, Pretoria, South Africa


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