The perils of promoting vaping

Patrick Van Esch and Sommer Kapitan

25 Sep 2019

The perils of promoting vaping

Vaping is the new, socially accepted way to get a high-dose hit of nicotine. When it comes to aiding smoking cessation, vaping marketing presents a safer alternative. But when positioning vapes as a lifestyle choice, marketing is dangerous.

The promotion and use of vaping devices in NZ is, at present, unregulated and informal. Though it’s illegal to sell nicotine to people under 18, Kiwis can vape in offices, schools and childcare centres. And they can encounter vaping advertisements on social media, billboards, public TV channels, and toilet stalls.

Vaping effects unknown

The long-term effects of vaping are unknown. Vapes deliver nearly as much nicotine as their highly regulated counterparts, cigarettes. A series of mysterious vaping illnesses overseas casts a haze over claims that vaping is safe. The positioning of vapes as a lifestyle choice for non-smokers is a public health concern.

Social influencers make vaping attractive

The New Zealand Ministry of Health promotes vaping as a smoking cessation tool. Yet, the majority of vaping marketing focuses on the vaping lifestyle and the sex appeal of vape users, from tricks to flavours and entertainment. This year alone, the Advertising Standards Authority has received at least 58 complaints about these vaping advertisements.

Vype aggressively entered the NZ market through TV, digital apps, and social influencers who position the use of vapes as attractive, entertaining, hip, and fun. Ads show bright colours, upbeat music, and bold flavours. Social influencers exude sex appeal and quote Kiwi mantras such as “Do the mahi, get the Vype” while enveloped in billowing vapours.

Social influencers are effective at energising their target audiences. They are viewed as authentic, in part because of the sense of intimacy and friendship they create through their content. Social influence changes a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours as a result of interactions with admired others.

Flavours, taste and smell to target youths

Vapes are slender, attractive, and fit in your pocket. When used with flavours specifically marketed towards young people (berry, mango, milkshake, mint and vanilla), it’s clear why big tobacco is involved in the vape market. Social media content of vape brands is being viewed, shared, and discussed by our youth in a positive light. How can regulators allow adolescent exposure to vaping brands that are seeking to convert non-smokers into vape users?

Regulation is still a cloud of smoke

Regulation has not kept pace with user adoption and marketing practices for nicotine-based vapes. Currently, it’s up to individual employers, councils and business owners to ban vaping on their premises. There are no mandatory product safety requirements for vaping products.

It is not an advertiser’s job to promote health and wellbeing. It is their goal and function to sell. It is, however, the job of government and regulators to ensure the health and wellbeing of the consumers being marketed to, especially when vaping products are addictive.

Vaping safety - From supporting cast to starring role

Though vaping is preferable to smoking, it is also important to make the devices less visible. Don’t we want to prevent non-smokers and children from picking up the habit?

As the government considers an amendment to the Smoke-free Environments Act 1990, promotion of high-dose nicotine vapes should be regulated like cigarettes. This represents a bold step, especially because regulators have the power to ensure vaping is no longer marketed and sold as an appealing lifestyle choice.