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A Cloudy Matter: How E-Cigarette Marketing Strategies Appeal to Youth

“We want to be part of the solution to end combustible smoking, not part of a problem to attract youth, never smokers, or former smokers to nicotine products. We invest our time and resources in new ways to deliver JUUL exclusively to adult smokers, and we welcome discussions on this topic.” 

  – JUUL Labs

JUUL, Vuse, Kangertech, NJOY and Innokin are among the many e-cigarette companies selling products proven to be useful aids to quit smoking. Because of their ability to deter users from cigarettes, these e-cigarettes, also called e-cigs, vapes and vape pens, are thought to have the potential to prevent up to 6.6 million premature deaths in the United States over the next decade.

However, besides smokers looking to quit, e-cigarettes appeal to an audience that has little practical use for these products: adolescents. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that current e-cigarette use among American high school students reached a staggering 20.8 percent in 2018. Not long after, the 20th Surgeon General of the United States declared youth e-cigarette use an epidemic.

Marketing strategies are largely responsible for the increasing prevalence of e-cigarette use among youth. From 2011 to 2015, as the number of e-cig ads increased, usage jumped 900 percent in adolescents. E-cigarette companies are succeeding in persuading teens and pre-teens alike to try their product by mirroring the practices used previously by the tobacco industry. In doing so, e-cig companies glamorize their products by posting advertisements that often feature enticing material, like celebrities, sexual content, sports and music.

How e-cigarette use among youth is rising along with ad expenditures. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In a study conducted by research scientist Dr. Alisa Padon and colleagues, 154 video-based e-cigarette advertisements were assigned a content appealing to youth (CAY) index. All of the ads were found to include at least some material that tends to attract adolescents. Emotional appeals were the most frequent, followed by themes of happiness, friendship, sex and success in 68, 41, 24 and 24 percent of e-cig ads respectively.

A different study published in the Addiction Biology journal had teenage subjects undergo a functional MRI (fMRI) scan while viewing these e-cigarette advertisements, it was revealed they experienced increased overall brain activation. Frontal and medial brain areas were activated most; in particular, regions associated with cognitive control, reward, visual processing and attention, and memory. This could indicate that e-cigarette ads are neurologically influencing the behavior of adolescents, calling into question whether this marketing is ethically sound.

In addition to implementing the aforementioned advertising techniques, e-cig companies entice a young audience by offering appealing flavors in their products. Among more than 400 available brands of e-cigarettes, 84 percent offered fruit flavors while 80 percent offered dessert flavors, including the traditional “kid-friendly” flavors of cotton candy, gummy bear and banana split.

Twirly Pop E-liquid. Note how colorful and innocent the bottles appear. Image via Flickr.

The sweet flavors of e-cigarettes also mask the bitter taste of the dangerous chemical most of them contain: nicotine. In fact, just over 86 percent of teen e-cig users were not aware nicotine was present in their e-cig; when asked what they believed was in their e-cig, “just flavoring” was the most common response.

Furthermore, these sweet flavorings were found to intensify the effects of nicotine in the brain, leading to the altered development of the cerebral cortex and hippocampus and causing problems with memory and attention span. E-cigarette smokers also had greater activation in the nucleus accumbens, a primary reward center in the brain that can be predictive of drug abuse, while smoking a sweet-flavored e-cigarette. In other words, the novel, sweet, even pleasurable experience created by the use of these appetizing flavors can open the door to a life of addiction.

The nucleus accumbens highlighted in red. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As with most addictive substances, nicotine activates the brain’s reward circuit. When nicotine enters the bloodstream via vaping, large amounts of dopamine are released in the brain, producing an unnatural “high.” Continued exposure to nicotine results in the desensitization of the dopamine receptors in the brain, and in turn, greater amounts of dopamine are required to reach the initial level of satisfaction. At this point, addiction is occurring, and the dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for inhibition, decision-making and reasoning, gradually ensues. This process essentially depletes a person’s willpower to regulate any desire to control vaping habits.

The prefrontal cortex does not reach full maturity until the age of 25, and until the brain is fully developed, there is a lack of sophistication, complexity of thought and regulation of emotions occurring in the brain. In the case of addiction in adolescents, the prefrontal cortex begins to malfunction before it even has the chance to fully develop, making it even harder to quit. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this can lead to long-term brain development issues; greater chances of experiencing depression, anxiety and antisocial personality disorder; and escalation of addiction into abuse of cigarettes and other drugs.

Numerous sources of evidence prove that e-cigarette companies are utilizing youth-appealing advertisements and flavors in their marketing campaigns, which promote a product that can bring about negative neurological impacts among adolescents. The e-cigarette industry has disregarded the well-being of youth while ignoring moral and ethical standards generally agreed upon by society. In light of this, recent actions have been taken by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to limit access to popular flavors and regulate e-cigarette website sales. Nevertheless, until more regulations are put in place, companies like JUUL will be able to elude responsibility for their actions and necessary justice for affected youth.

Featured image via Pixabay

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