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January-February 2020

How vaping companies appeal to today’s teens

Social media, store displays, and youth-savvy flavours—behind the smoke screen on how young people are being marketed to

Amanda Lee

 

“I had a flavour that was Fruit Loops in a gold and matte black carbon vape, and I was in Grade 9,” says Reese Sanders, a 19-year-old student at the University of Guelph. By Grade 10, Sanders was a part of a group chat called “e-cigarettes” with over 100 other students in his high school in Oakville, Ontario. “We’d text: Hey, anybody going to the washroom now? And we’d all be linking up, vaping,” he says.

In 2003, pharmacist—and smoker—Hon Lik created the first commercially successful vape. Popular vape brand JUUL traces its origins back to two smokers who were seeking an alternative to cigarettes in 2005. Vape products have been in Canada since at least 2004, but e-cigarettes containing nicotine were only legalized and regulated at the federal level in May 2018.

Roughly 4.9 million Canadians are smokers and vape companies position themselves as a safer alternative to cigarettes. “JUUL is for adult smokers only who are looking to switch off combustible cigarettes,” says Lisa Hutniak, director of communications, JUUL Labs Canada. “Vaping products, including JUUL, are not intended for youth or non-smokers.” While the World Health Organization stated in 2008 that it does not consider e-cigarettes a legitimate smoking cessation aid, the federal government is considering letting e-cigarette companies promote the health benefits of their products.

Dr. David Hammond at the University of Waterloo led a study of vaping habits amongst Canadians 16 to 19 years old. Alarmingly, from 2017 to 2018, the rate of teen vaping shot up by 74 percent. If vape products are designed to help smokers quit cigarettes, how is it that the rates of vaping among youth are increasing? Let’s start with a little history.

When asked just how young a customer the tobacco company R.J. Reynolds was prepared to target, an executive is known to have said, “They got lips? We want them.”

Big tobacco companies are the old guard in the nicotine market. Joe Camel, Popeye’s pipe, even candy cigarettes. It’s easy to argue the tobacco industry was blatant in making their products appeal to children. In one study from 1991, six-year-olds were as familiar with Joe Camel as they were Mickey Mouse. The tobacco industry aided in the design of cigarette candy products.

Tobacco companies marketed smoking to teenagers as an illicit pleasure, a rite of passage. “A cigarette for the beginner is a symbolic act. I am no longer my mother’s child, I’m tough, I am an adventurer, I’m not square…” a 1969 draft report to the board of directors of Philip Morris stated.

For decades, the industry understood “if our company is to survive and prosper, over the long term we must get our share of the youth market…” And tobacco companies, like R. J. Reynolds, profiled their young adult franchise as being as young as 14 years old. Tobacco companies knew that “today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer.”

“These guys have been in the drug business for a couple of hundred years now and they’re pretty good at it,” says Damian O’Hara, a smoking cessation specialist from Ontario.

Sanders says, “You could be the biggest loser, but if you had a really nice vape, filled with good juice, and one of the popular kids was out of vape, they’d be hanging out with you.” Sanders was just 12 when he tried vaping for the first time and says by the age of 14, he was addicted. “Vaping came out of nowhere,” says Sanders. “Your parents didn’t know any better because it’s not like you’re smoking a cigarette in bed.” Eliza Balkwill, an occasional vape user, echoes this. “It was huge when I was in high school,” says the 19-year-old student at Mount Royal University in Calgary. “[People vaped] in class, the parking lot, bathroom, parties—pretty much everywhere.” She says the teens were addicted to high-nicotine vapes (like JUUL), as they produced little smoke and were discrete. “Vaping is associated with the party lifestyle,” says Balkwill.

But according to O’Hara, who is a former heavy smoker, marketing addictive drugs to young people is a long-worn path for the tobacco industry. “To position vaping in any other way than a very deliberate ploy to get young people addicted to nicotine is incredibly naive,” he says. He adds the caveat that vape companies do promote vaping as a way for cigarette smokers to stop smoking tobacco.

It’s not a hard leap to make when you realize how much the tobacco industry has invested in vape companies. Altria Group, one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of tobacco and tobacco-related products acquired a 35 percent stake in JUUL. vuse is owned by R.J. Reynolds Vapor Company. Another popular brand, Vype, is owned by British American Tobacco (bat). After all, this is an industry that has long understood what they’re really selling. In 1971, a scientist at Philip Morris stated, “The product is nicotine … think of the cigarette pack as a storage container for a day’s supply of nicotine.”

“The same [tobacco industry] who brought you doctors in the ‘50s telling you smoking was good for you, are now promoting e-cigarettes as a way to quit smoking,” says Marvin Krank, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. In the early days of JUUL a lot of the marketing was nakedly targeted to young people in the U.S., O’Hara explains. “Not just with the flavours, but the specific imagery they were using in their Instagram posts.” JUUL’s early advertising featured bold colours and youthful models. A white paper by the Stanford University School of Medicine from January 2019 studied JUUL’s marketing campaign from 2015 to 2018. It concluded JUUL “has achieved a cult level of popularity among school-aged adolescents.”

In Canada, the federal government allows for the promotion of vaping products on TV, radio, billboards, in newspapers, on social media, and other mainstream media, according to Heart & Stroke Canada. Recently, however, the Ontario government proposed to ban the promotion of vaping products in gas stations and convenience stores. JUUL didn’t hit the Canadian market until September 2018 and Hutniak says their company has only run two marketing campaigns since then. But it was already a fait accompli. In a short time, according to the CBC, JUUL has captured a staggering 78 percent of the Canadian market.

“Despite the fact that smoking would be uncool, vaping can be Vype or Vuse,” says O’Hara. “It’s about the semiotics as well as the look and feel of the products.” The look includes huge, remote-controlled, hand-held vapes. “All this cool technology— they were clearly hitting our demographic,” says Sanders.

“Vape stores aren’t full of old smokers looking to quit, they’re full of young kids looking for new flavours and new experiences,” says O’Hara. At 180 Smoke Vape Store on Queen Street West in Toronto, vape products are displayed like products would be in an Apple Store. The VOOPOO Drag is one product that looks more like a work of art than an e-cigarette— and with a price to match. Each vape product is uniquely decorated with a marbled effect reminiscent of a petrol slick. VOOPOO’s selling feature is no two are the same, and there’s even a side panel where you can program your vape with a ticker-tape message. “Vaping is a whole bougie thing,” says Sanders. “It’s the new generation of wanting to flash money and that was part of it.”

But vape companies aren’t containing themselves to brick-and-mortar stores. Vype teamed up with British rapper Tinie Tempah for their pop-up in London in 2016 and the company attempted a pop-up operation in Toronto’s Dundas Square in April 2019 before it was shut down by Health Canada for contravening the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act. Vype also had a free-standing display on King Street West in Toronto. With its black frame filled in with large green plants and roped-off entrance, it looked more like the entry point to an art installation.

Vape companies have also been called out for creating e-juice flavours that blatantly appeal to teens. Vype’s display in the Queen Street West store (180 Smoke) could be mistaken for a Nespresso display and their flavours include dark cherry, ripe mango, classic peach, and fresh apple. Further in the vape store are a collection of flavours to sample—including Sparkling Blueberry Lemonade and Banana Oatmeal. Heart & Stroke Canada points the finger at federal law, which not only allows for the promotion of vaping products, but also allows the manufacturing of attractive flavours that entice youth. “We did some research with Grade 9 and 10 students,” explains Krank, “and when you asked what flavours they’re using, the vast majority are fruit or candy flavours.” Online, teenagers are being seduced with packaging. The branding on some e-juice containers, which contain nicotine and flavourings mixed with propylene glycol, resembles Sour Patch Kids or Warheads’ design. And some of the e-juice flavours will literally make you feel like a kid in a candy store: caramel apple, Sweet-ish Berries, cotton candy, blue freezie, glazed donuts.

Colorado-based Vaprwear markets its “gear—with a higher purpose” with young models who look more like they’re heading to their Grade 11 chemistry class than the office. “They’re selling a hoodie now,” says Krank. “The string is connected to an e-cigarette which can be sucked through what looks like a string—making it easily hidden.”

It’s self-evident that teenagers now live their lives online in a way previous generations didn’t. “The beauty of tobacco marketing or guerilla marketing to young people is once you have seeded the thought and encouraged others to share it, it can run out of control really fast,” O’Hara explains.

Look up #vapetricks and you’ll see more than five million posts on Instagram and a staggering 200 million views on TikTok, a social media app for creating short lip-sync or talent videos that is especially popular with teenagers. “Vape culture is undeniable,” says Sanders. Instead of practising smoke rings in front of the bedroom mirror with a Benson & Hedges cigarette, on YouTube you’ll find tutorials on how to perfect the ghost, the dragon, and the vape bubble—where the vapour is literally trapped inside a soap bubble.

Online, vape culture is badass, rebellious, cool. It’s also virtually impossible to monitor. There isn’t much to stop a 12- or 13-year-old from following these influencers on social media. JUUL shut down their social media accounts at the end of 2018, following an fda announcement that it would investigate vape companies, and JUUL Labs Canada say they have no social media presence in Canada. But other vape companies do. Vype Canada has an Instagram account that largely markets their products. VOOPOO has over 420,000 followers on their Instagram account, and their most recent posts include a vaping elephant, guys flexing their guns (and their vapes), and a vape duel between two young men for the affections of a girl.

Sanders says Supreme Patty and the Nelk Boys from Canada are influential online channels. On the Nelk Boys’ Instagram account there are pranks where they aggressively vape in peoples’ faces or vape to impress a girl in front of her boyfriend. “Everybody my age follows them, and they’ll promote the vape culture in general.” But not all vape influencers are male. Zophie Vapes has 106,000 followers on Instagram, where she reviews products and hosts giveaways. O’Hara points out in the past tobacco companies like Philip Morris once had huge marketing budgets. “But now your customers advertise for you. It’s cheap as chips,” he says.

“It got so bad that I’d leave my vape charging overnight and turn my head over in the morning to take a hit, so my muscles would instantly feel better,” says Sanders. “In the area of research, we talk about nicotine being as hard a drug to get off as heroin,” explains Krank. “It might have started as a trend, but now people are addicted.”

With professional help, Sanders was able to break up with nicotine. “It was so crazy to think I was that addicted as a 40-a-day smoker at such a young age,” he says.

But there could be a whole generation of Canadian teens who won’t be so lucky. “There is a robust association between vaping and smoking,” says Hammond. “Kids who vape first are more likely to smoke.” However, Hammond explains the association isn’t causal: kids who engage in one form of risky behaviour are more likely to engage in another.

At the time of writing, four vaping-related illnesses have been reported in Canada, three in Quebec and another in Ontario, while according to Reuters, there have been more than 2,290 vaping-related illnesses and 47 related deaths in the U.S. “This is only the acute effects,” says Krank. “No one has studied the long-term effects.” “Kids were oblivious to the effects of vaping and used it because it was fun,” says Balkwill. However, the Calgary student has noticed friends cutting back or getting rid of their vapes following the reported health issues.

Make no mistake, vaping is big business. At the time of writing, according to the Financial Post sales from industry in Canada were projected to hit $895 million in 2019. “If you’re in a business where six million customers around the world are dying every year, you need fresh meat,” says O’Hara. “And that comes via vaping.” It would be highly beneficial for these companies if their customers started smoking, because smoking is staggeringly more profitable. Vaping has been referred to as “cigarettes on training wheels,” and it seems there could be some legitimacy to O’Hara’s prediction. Hammond says the prevalence of cigarette smoking has been declining among Canadian youth for several decades, but his study found that cigarette smoking among 16- to 19-year-olds has already increased by 45 percent from 2017 to 2018.

Which is ironic, given Lik, who has been called “the Godfather of Vape” created the first e-cigarette so he wouldn’t die from a smoking-related disease like his father and then sold his patent off to Imperial Tobacco.

 

Updates:

In December, Health Canada announced plans to ban all forms of e-cigarette advertising that could be seen by young people, including in public and on social media.

In January 2020, Juul Labs Canada announced it will temporarily stop producing some of their flavoured e-cigarette pods, including mango, vanilla, fruit, and cucumber flavoured e-cigarette pods. The company will continue to produce mint and tobacco flavoured pods, but could reintroduce the other flavoured pods under the guidance of Health Canada. On April 1, 2020, Nova Scotia will become the first province to ban the sale of all flavoured e-cigarette products.

The first vaping-associated lung illness was reported in Alberta in January 2020. As of February 11, 2020, 17 cases of vaping-associated lung illness have now been reported to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

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