Big Tobacco and its allies long have exploited evolving media to hawk harmful products, promoting them as desirable and sexy in print, movies, radio, television, and online. So, it’s not exactly a surprise that these merchants of death have become masters of marketing on social media, targeting young consumers worldwide.
Their latest campaigns may let cigarette- and e-cigarette-makers skirt regulations, some of them tough and aimed at protecting naïve, vulnerable kids from lifetime addictions.
The tobacco hype may be working all too well, with researchers at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere finding that 10.8 million adults in the United States are “vaping,” with 54.6 percent of e-cigarette users also smoking cigarettes. “About 15 percent of vapers had never smoked cigarettes, and 30.4 percent had quit smoking them,” the newspaper reported.
In separate articles, the news organization reported on how modern advertising and marketing whizzes take advantage of the gullibility and plasticity of young minds by pushing, relentlessly on picture-focused sites and smartphone apps, visually appealing images and designs, rather than text-heavy messages.
Such tactics to subtly advocate for tobacco- and nicotine-related products have come under intense scrutiny by investigators for the federal Food and Drug Administration, which has asked how Juul, an e-cigarette, blew up in popularity overnight with teens across the country.
Regulators have expressed concern, early on, about internal Juul communications they have gotten ahold of showing the firm launched its products with online and especially with social media campaigns rife with photos of e-cigarette-using teens at dances, parties, and in other fun-looking social events. But later, as parents and educators howled about Juul use — with kids vaping in class and taking over parts of schools, such as restrooms to “vape” with the devices — firm marketers altered the appearance of their ads and marketing material, relying on visuals of much older, adult models.
Juul’s makers insist their product aims to provide a more healthful alternative to cigarettes and other fully tobacco products that historically have been proven to cause cancers, as well as contributing to other damaging lung and heart diseases. The e-cigarette maker also has maintained that regulators, parents, and educators shouldn’t crack down on Juul and other devices because they’re not targeting kids as their products’ chief markets.
But research, funded by anti-tobacco organizations, casts doubts on those claims. Marketing experts at the University of Southern California reported that they have tracked Big Tobacco’s global networks of great sophistication that push cigarettes and e-cigarettes, relying on the internet and social media.
Again, these hard-to-track peddlers — the investigators had to promise many anonymity as they traced their efforts around the planet — found that youthful consumers respond most to visuals. They also are swayed by peer endorsements, pushed via “social media influencers” (youths who become well-known online and can reach audiences in the thousands and even millions) and linking, notably through #hashtag campaigns.
Grown-ups, especially regulators, may be oblivious to social media and its powers with the young, who not only enjoy “viral” sharing but also participate in the experience with zeal, the New York Times reported, which added that, based on the USC study, complaints have been filed with regulators about Big Tobacco social media efforts.
In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and the havoc that can be wreaked upon them by defective and dangerous products, notably cigarettes, e-cigarettes, cigars, pipes, hookahs — you name the mechanism that evidence has shown addicts its users and attacks their health, wealth, and well-being.
Count me among the many smoking foes who held out faint hope that vaping and e-cigarettes, which use liquid and not combustible delivery systems, might have offered a step on a path for cigarette and cigar users to unhook themselves from their bad habits. But the extreme popularity of devices like the Juul — which is pricey for kids and delivers in a single vaping cartridge the equivalent of a cigarette pack’s worth of harmful nicotine — suggests that the FDA may have blundered in a way that will harm the health of a generation.
The agency’s chief, Scott Gottlieb, is a physician with a history of close ties with Big Pharma — and service on the board of an e-cigarette maker. Any optimism about his role as a tough overseer of tobacco interests, however, has gone up in smoke. As a Trump Administration leader, Gottlieb has shown himself to be anti-regulation, notably in his early term decision to postpone tough restrictions developed in the Obama Administration on e-cigarettes and vaping. Gottlieb hemmed, hawed, and insisted that further study was merited.
Meantime, to the horror of parents and teachers and public health experts, Juul became a teen sensation, with headlines about it screaming as hot trend and quoting devoted users as saying, well, yeah, they find it hard to stop vaping — nicotine fits, much, kids?
Lest any adults doubt, by the way, how a myriad of clues — visual, for example, and from peers — push youths to unhealthy behaviors, researchers at the independent, nonpartisan RAND Corporation have conducted intriguing studies with teens and with their parents’ approval. RAND researchers have built a model of a neighborhood convenience store (ala a 7-Eleven) and they observe kids as they roam and shop in it, testing their views and attitudes, before, during and after.
A key aspect of this study involves a product wall, which kids aren’t told about and which can be moved around. It displays an array of tobacco products and e-cigarettes. Sometimes it shows up deep in the store, sometimes it moves to the front, especially near the cash register-checkout area.
Teens, just by greater exposure to this “power wall,” show measurable and increased willingness to use tobacco and experiment with e-cigarettes, RAND researchers found, adding that it is key to understand youths’ susceptibility to various influences like this because critical decisions about substance use (and abuse) get made a “point of sale” sites.
You may, in the meantime cite me and what likely would be an army of taxpayers upset and frustrated that Big Tobacco and others in the industry, yet again, appear to be outfoxing regulators at the FDA. We’ve seen this before, with cigarette makers creating the alluring hoax of phony advertising icons like the Marlboro Man, or getting celebrity endorsements, or pushing tobacco products through placements in popular TV shows and movies, or by covertly funding and swaying medical scientists’ “research,” or by slipping money to “astro-turf” or bogus patient or consumer advocacy groups.
We need to get our lawmakers and regulators moving faster and better to protect our young people. If Big Tobacco won’t quit with its deceptions, this may mean our determination also will need to be all the greater, too.