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WSU researcher: Marketing leads to vaping

A 15-year-old high school student uses a vaping device near a school campus in Massachusetts. (Steven Senne / Associated Press)
A 15-year-old high school student uses a vaping device near a school campus in Massachusetts. (Steven Senne / Associated Press)
By Scott Jackson Moscow-Pullman Daily News

PULLMAN – As e-cigarette or vape use continues to trend skyward, especially among teens, a Washington State University researcher says controlling marketing and messaging will be key in curbing a new tobacco-use epidemic.

Business and marketing professor Betsy Howlett, who studies how e-cigarette addiction warnings and health-related claims affect behavior, said a large part of the problem is unregulated messaging. Howlett, who serves on the Food and Drug Administration’s Risk Communication Advisory Committee, said when e-cigarette advertisements make health-related claims, especially those comparing them favorably to traditional cigarettes, it tends to weaken consumer perception of the risks involved in the product.

“Since we know that it doesn’t contain tar and it doesn’t contain all those other (carcinogens), people mistakenly believe that ‘Oh, it’s harmless’ – that’s not the case,” Howlett said. “There’s a lot of lack of awareness that nicotine is not good for your body – it has a number of cardiovascular implications that are not positive; it’s bad for you.”

Howlett noted that nicotine consumption puts people at increased risk for an array of ailments including cardiovascular disease, arteriosclerosis and stroke.

“Not to mention that we also don’t know a lot about the long-term consequences of e-cigarette use because they haven’t been around that long,” she added.

In addition to encouraging consumers to underestimate the risks of nicotine use, Howlett said e-cigarette marketing also tends to target young adults. While the devices were originally imagined and marketed as a cessation strategy for people who smoke combustible cigarettes, the products have since found their way into the hands of America’s youth. According to a 2019 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 10 middle-schoolers and a quarter of high-schoolers reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.

She said one strategy for addressing this would be to regulate e-cigarette sales and marketing much the same way other tobacco products are regulated. This includes taxing the products more aggressively, removing “e-juice” flavors like tutti frutti and gummy bear from store shelves, and tightly restricting advertising so that it is directed toward the demographic e-cigarettes were originally intended for – adult smokers.

“Nicotine, as we know, is so highly addictive and it’s very difficult to stop – one of the things we need to focus on, that may be more effective, is to stop this next generation of young people from using this product,” she said. “What we really need to be focusing on are the younger consumers – the 14- and 15-year-olds who were like, ‘Wow, this is kind of cool’ – we’ve got to stop that before they get their addiction going.”

Howlett said the point of these efforts isn’t to make decisions on behalf of the populace or even to bolster public health so much as it is to ensure that consumers aren’t being misled about the safety of products that carry potentially mortal consequences. If a consumer who wouldn’t otherwise vape picks one up because they’ve been led to believe that the devices are to some degree harmless, then they deserve to understand the health risks associated with nicotine, Howlett said.

“It’s the same thing with calories – if you want to eat a 2,000-calorie lunch, go, have at it, but know that you’re eating 2,000 calories,” Howlett said. “This is the same thing. If you want to do e-cigarettes, then fine, but make sure you’re of legal age, and you can make an adult decision and make sure you know what you’re getting into, which is you’re wrecking your cardiovascular system.”

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