Social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and Facebook overwhelmingly show vaping in a positive light. This messaging makes it seem that e-cigarette use is common and socially accepted.
Traditional tobacco advertising has been banned in Australia for decades. However, e-cigarettes are widely promoted on social media, undoing some of the positive work of previous decades.
Most platforms have content policies that expressly prohibit the promotion of tobacco product use, including e-cigarettes. But our new research, published this week, shows these policies are routinely violated with little or no consequences.
Positive videos result in more vaping
Positive social media messages around vaping may particularly impact young people, who are the most frequent users of social media. In some cases, these messages have even been shown to blatantly target teens.
Research shows young people who view social media posts featuring e-cigarettes are more likely to vape and to view e-cigarettes positively. This is true of both e-cigarette advertising and user-generated content, with creators effectively doing the marketing job for e-cigarette companies.
TikTok emphasises tricks and downplays harms
In our recently published study, we looked at the ways e-cigarettes are being advertised and promoted on TikTok. We analysed 264 English language user-generated e-cigarette videos and evaluated them against TikTok’s own content policy in February 2022.
We found most of the videos (98%) portrayed e-cigarettes positively.
More than one-quarter of the videos clearly violated TikTok’s content policy and promoted vaping products for purchase.
Few videos contained health warnings. Only 2% of posts referenced vape or nicotine addiction.
A small number of posts referred to public health professionals or commented on e-cigarette regulation. These posts were comparatively less popular, receiving a smaller proportion of views and likes.
Half the videos referred to a vaping community. These posts were slightly more popular than those that didn’t refer to a shared identity. This may act to shape norms around e-cigarette use and increase the perception that vaping is socially accepted.
Popular posts also included references to vape tricks (such as creating shapes from exhaled aerosol), with early research showing adolescents often identified vaping tricks as the reason they started using e-cigarettes. Posts also used humour, which is an effective tool to reach young social media users.
Videos that violated content policy often provided details on how and where to purchase e-cigarette products. This included providing links to online retailers and to other social media accounts.
The promotion of offers such as giveaways and sale prices were common, in direct violation of content policy. Many posts also provided product reviews.
So what needs to happen?
We can’t rely on platforms to develop and enforce content policy. Social media policies are commonly violated and there are no major consequences – the platforms themselves decide the consequences for breaches.
This is a problem because social media platforms have a clear financial incentive not to punish people who breach their policies.
The federal government’s recent strong position to stamp out recreational vaping among young people through regulations, enforcement, education, plain packaging and a ban on flavourings is welcomed.
However, this did not include clamping down on e-cigarette advertising, promotion and sponsorship on social media, which is also clearly needed.
Emphasis needs to be placed on enforcement of policies. This must include requiring social media platforms to report on how they’re ensuring regulations are being upheld.
Current policies and moderation processes are insufficient in restricting the spread of pro e-cigarette content on TikTok. This is exposing young social media users to e-cigarette use. There needs to be greater regulation of e-cigarette content and its promotion, to prevent future uptake and harm to young people.