E-cigarettes were first introduced in the United States in 2007. The use of electronic cigarettes has risen dramatically in part because they are popularly considered safer and more socially acceptable than combustible cigarettes and because there are fewer restrictions on their purchase and use.
Data from the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey revealed that e-cigarette use tripled among middle and high school students from 2013 to 2014. The University of California study by San Diego School of Medicine researchers has suggested that online e-cigarette vendors engage customers by using popular internet tools. The investigators point to aggressive online marketing tactics that make purchasing e-cigarettes easy for all ages.
First author Tim K. Mackey said, "We found e-cigarette vendors were highly engaged in promoting the culture of 'vaping' online, including posting images to Instagram, a social media site used by 52% of teens. Despite the fact that 47 states prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, the results highlight the potential of the Internet to encourage e-cigarette initiation and underage purchasing. This is particularly concerning given that the FDA does not have specific proposed regulations for online e-cigarette sales."
Researchers found that 68% of the 57 online e-cigarette vendors they studied displayed one or more health warnings about the devices on their website. However, the notices were in smaller fonts or placed discretely in the terms and conditions section of a website. One third of the vendors were found to have no detectable age verification process for buyers and of those that did, most required only a simple click to say the buyer was within the legal age limit.
Mackey who is also associate director of the joint master's degree in Health Policy and Law said, "Industry analysts estimate that online sales comprise 25-30% of the $2 billion annual e-cigarette market, which may account for a high presence of vendors on social media. The study found that online e-cigarette vendors use a variety of sophisticated and aggressive marketing practices, including promotional offers and high social media engagement to promote the sale of their products."
The research team reported that 70% of the online vendors used more than one of the three most commonly used social media platforms- 63% used Twitter, 52% posted to Facebook and 42% were on Instagram. The researchers said, "The findings could impact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's 2014 proposed regulations of e-cigarette use, sale, marketing and manufacturing to include online monitoring of the laws."
The study is published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.