Vaping Billboard

Ads for new products are prevalent and can be found on tv, the radio, in print ads, on billboards, and even on social media – all places teens have access to.

In 2015 the CDC’s National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS) revealed that about 5.3% of middle schoolers and 16% of high schoolers were current vape users. Only five years later, those numbers have escalated dramatically, with 10.5% of middle schoolers and 27.5% of high schoolers currently using vapes. Vaping has played a significant role in raising the number of current youth tobacco users overall – over 6 million – but how did vaping become so prevalent among teens in such a short amount of time? In short, big tobacco companies used marketing strategies tailored for teenagers and did so in clandestine ways to circumvent rules and regulations. To introduce effective vaping prevention strategies in your community, it’s helpful to understand the marketing tactics Big Tobacco has used for years to pull in new users – including teens.

A little bit of tobacco marketing history…

Tobacco companies are well acquainted with federal regulations restricting their marketing freedoms. In 1969, Congress passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act – an extension of the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 – which in addition to requiring cigarette companies to include warning labels on their packaging, also banned cigarette advertisements from radio and television.

Then in 1998, the Master Settlement Agreement created new restrictions limiting the promotion and advertising of cigarettes and prohibiting tobacco advertising targeting minors. Other restrictions under the agreement included the elimination of outdoor, billboard, and public transit advertisements and restricting the use of cigarette brand names on merchandise.

In 1999, the United States Department of Justice sued tobacco companies on several grounds including their attempts to target the youth market, and using deceptive marketing tactics, for example, claiming “light” or “low-tar” cigarettes were less harmful than full-flavored cigarettes. In 2006, the US Court of Appeals finalized a ruling that held tobacco companies liable for a 50-year long conspiracy to cover up health risks associated with smoking and consistently market their products to youth.

As a result of this lawsuit, in 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Control Act gave the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products, including manufacturing, distribution, and marketing. The Tobacco Control Act restricts tobacco marketing and sales to youth, requires that all smokeless tobacco products have warning labels, ensures that any claims of “modified risk” are supported by scientific evidence, requires that all tobacco products disclose their ingredients, and preserves state’s rights to regulate certain aspects of tobacco products.

So how are tobacco companies still getting away with marketing to youth?

Despite these regulations, tobacco companies still find ways to market and sell their products to youth. In 2017, the tobacco industry spent about 9.36 billion dollars marketing their products, with the majority of funds going towards retail marketing, including in-store ads and payments to retailers and wholesalers to reduce consumer prices and strategically place products. A study from 2007 found that this same cigarette retail marketing increased the likelihood that youth would move from experimentation to consistent tobacco product use. Most recently, Big Tobacco has put a substantial amount of their efforts towards marketing new products such as vapes and “heat not burn” products. In 2019, television was reported as the most frequent source of vape advertising exposure among youth. The contents of these ads alarmed public health officials as many of them contained young adults that resembled youth and depicted youthful scenes such as parties or clubs.

Promotional events and social media are also marketing methods to reach teens. In 2016, tobacco companies spent about $122 million on experiential marketing, an effective way for tobacco companies to pull in new customers by making smoking look like an exclusive and cool experience. The appeal of the smoking experience influences teens to experiment with tobacco products. For example, tobacco companies will sponsor events or set up “pop-up” retail spaces like smoking lounges and party busses at public venues like arts and music festivals, offering discounted products, device charging stations, free refreshments, and other conveniences that pull people in. Even though tobacco pop-ups are age-restricted to legal smokers, their presence and air of exclusivity at events popular among teens create a secondary and strong marketing message about the allure of tobacco among underage smokers.

Smoking and group of womenSocial media is one of the most prevalent ways that tobacco companies reach teens. Many vaping social media ads depict young adults in fun social environments. These ads glamorize youth tobacco use and contribute to a perception that smoking is cool, prevalent, and desirable. In 2015, JUUL spent over a million dollars on internet advertising alone, and unsurprisingly, in 2019, more than half of middle and high school current e-cigarette users reported that JUUL was their usual brand.

Big Tobacco recognizes that youth make up a new generation of potential tobacco product users and they are crafty with their marketing efforts to skirt regulations. It is beneficial to educate youth on tobacco marketing tactics so that they can recognize when they are being targeted and make the conscious decision to deny these efforts. There are a handful of easily noticeable ideas tobacco companies use to sell their products and once recognized, are hard to ignore.

Cool, safe, fun, and flavorful.

Tobacco companies use consistent messaging across their product advertising to make their products appealing to all ages. This messaging includes the perception that tobacco products are one of the following –safe, cool, fun, or flavorful.

  • Safe: Several JUUL ads made claims of vaping being safer than traditional cigarette smoking, and these ads quickly came under fire when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that these claims were illegitimate and without any scientific evidence. 
  • Cool and Fun: With their sleek design and modern technology paired with youthful advertisements, JUUL made their products appear as cool as possible. 
  • Flavorful: Until recently, JUUL and other e-cigarette pods came in a wide assortment of youth-friendly flavors like crème brulee and mango until flavor bans were set to counter the sharp rise in youth vaping rates. JUUL was hit hard by these bans, limiting their product market exponentially by taking their most popular flavors among youth off the shelves

Take a look at the ads below to see how JUUL was able to incorporate safe, cool, fun, and flavorful into vape marketing.

Juul, group of women, and creme brulee

How can communities counter the effects of deceptive tobacco marketing?

Several anti-smoking organizations have countered these marketing tactics by producing anti-vaping marketing messages, but this counter-messaging may not be enough to reverse the effects big tobacco marketing has on teens. It is crucial to community vaping prevention efforts to educate youth on the risks of vaping and the marketing tactics tobacco companies use to target youth. As someone who works directly with teens in your community, you may feel that you have a responsibility to do something about the rise in youth vaping rates. The tobacco industry has done an incredible job advertising its products to youth and vapes are no exception. Incorporating an educational component into your prevention efforts is imperative, and if that educational component offers insight into tobacco marketing tactics in a way that is meaningful to youth, then you can help combat the rise in youth tobacco users overall.