The Issue of Vape Marketing and Underage Sales on TikTok

While countless studies have indicated a link between the presence of vapes on social media and increased underage consumption, TikTok keeps emerging as the most problematic platform.

A study conducted by Oxford University has unveiled the widespread advertising and underage sales of vapes on TikTok, raising concerns about the exposure of children to these products. The researchers investigated how social media, specifically TikTok, contributes to the promotion and distribution the products by analyzing content related to the sale and marketing of vaping products on the platform.

The analysis included 475 English-language TikTok videos posted between July 1, 2022, and August 31, 2023. Using hashtags like #puffbarss, #geekbar, and #elfbar, associated with vapes, and the study identified various promotional strategies. One notable tactic involved using hashtags such as #puffbundles to disguise vaping products by packaging them with items like lip gloss and candy.

The study found that over half (50.4%) of the analyzed videos advertised popular vaping brands, with 45% featuring cannabis products. Many of these products were marketed as part of bundled packages, often including unrelated items to mask their true nature. This strategy allows vendors to bypass legal restrictions on advertising and selling vaping products to minors.

Moreover, highlighted the study, there is a lack of age verification measures in the online sale of vaping products. Nearly half (45.2%) of the videos promoting these products indicated that age verification was not required for purchase, raising serious concerns about minors accessing these products without any safeguards.

Lead study author Page Dobbs, stressed the importance of parental vigilance and regulatory action to address this issue. Dobbs advised parents to be cautious if their children receive packages containing seemingly harmless items like candy or beauty products, as they might also contain vaping products. Additionally, policymakers and enforcement agencies are being urged to tackle the international shipment of these products, which allows individuals to bypass tobacco laws across different jurisdictions.

TikTok’s content moderation issues
More than other social media online platforms, TikTok has had issues with content moderation for a few years now, and the presence of illegal vape content has been a major one. A challenge on TikTok involves anonymous accounts emerging and offering easy access to disposable vapes, effectively creating a “black market” on the platform. Some of these accounts even link users to external websites where they can purchase these products in bulk.

Experts point out that TikTok’s difficulty in curbing vape promotions stems from its reliance on user-reported content rather than proactive measures. According to Andrew Childs, a criminology and criminal justice lecturer at Griffith University, TikTok focuses on automated detection methods, which, as stated in their policy, allows their team to spend more time reviewing nuanced content like hate speech, bullying, harassment, and misinformation.

The Social Media Effect
Meanwhile non-surprisingly, a number of studies found that exposure to tobacco and vaping products on social media correlates with increased consumption. A 2022 review of 29 peer-reviewed studies published in JAMA Pediatrics, analyzed surveys from over 139,000 participants from various age groups, nationalities, and social media platforms. The findings indicated that individuals exposed to tobacco content on social media were more likely to report using these products.

“We conducted a comprehensive review of the literature on tobacco use and social media, synthesizing the findings into a single association that summarizes the relationship between social media exposure and tobacco use,” said Scott Donaldson, a senior research associate at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. “Our findings show that these associations are strong and have significant public health implications.”

While a more recent review published in PLOS Global Public Health which also examined the influence of social media advertisements on youth vaping behaviours, found that exposure to vape promotions on platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook, and Instag ram, often endorsed by celebrities and influencers, significantly boost vaping’s popularity among young people. The recent study, including findings from 11 studies, and found that these marketing strategies attract more young users, increase their intentions to vape, and lead to higher initiation rates and frequency of vaping among the youth demographic.