GHEA and CADCA’s Evaluation and Research Team presented a recent installment of CADCA’s Research Into Action webinar series on Thursday, August 26, featuring Dr. Jordan Alpert. Dr. Alpert discussed his recent article, “Vaping and Instagram: A Content Analysis of e-Cigarette Posts Using the Content Appealing to Youth (CAY) Index,” focusing specifically on the characteristics of popular social media posts related to electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) on Instagram. He also presented the implications these findings have for public health programs addressing media literacy skills to educate young adults about ENDS content viewed on social media.  Shared below is the webinar recording, along with Dr. Alpert’s accompanying article.

E-Cigarette Instagram Posts and their Youth Appeal

Several decades ago, it was common to eat in the non-smoking section of a restaurant, directly across the hazy puffs of smokers. Smoking was permitted on airplanes, and it wasn’t unusual for the scent of tobacco to linger in hotel rooms. Today, cigarette smoking has reached the lowest level ever recorded among U.S. adults, and youth smoking has dropped to historic lows. In fact, only about 10 percent of young adults (18-24) smoke cigarettes. The fact that cigarettes are harmful and nicotine is addictive is common knowledge. However, young adults have the highest prevalence of e-cigarette usage.

Considering that young adults spend three hours per day on social media, seeing their peers blow intricate smoke rings and show off stylish devices (also known as mods) can be extremely influential.

Two of the most popular hashtags related to vaping, #vape and #vapelife, have over 29 million and 17 million posts, respectively. Social media posts about vaping largely focus on the design and features of mods. Often professionally photographed, the sleek and colorful design of mods are eye-candy.  No wonder young adults enjoy pausing to view decorative patterns and devices that resemble the smooth curvatures of the latest iPhone. Others look like futuristic gadgets from the latest sci-fi series on Netflix.  Aside from the attractive façade, mods and e-cigarettes contain nicotine.

Even as vaping brands are choosing to shut down their social media accounts to avoid implications of marketing to children, and Instagram has banned influencers from promoting vaping products, content related to vaping on social media is ubiquitous.

Halting vaping popularity is an opportunity to show that we have learned from our mistakes. Decades after the Marlboro man was the essence of cool, we know that the marketing tactics of tobacco companies contributed to getting young adults hooked on cigarettes. The appealing design of mods is reminiscent of cigarette packaging that often included striking colors, like the fluorescent colors of American Spirit, and likeable characters, such as  Joe Camel. Today, most cigarette packaging is obscured by large warning labels about the risks of smoking, sometimes including graphic images. Although the goal of such labels is to inform consumers about the adverse effects of cigarettes, it also serves to obscure the packaging, making it less “cool.” If one of the most appealing aspects of vaping is the colorful and interesting design of mods, requiring warning labels or a standardized design might contribute to lessening its appeal. If mods no longer beckon with its rainbow of colors and glitz, perhaps fewer mods would be showcased on social media.

The former Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, called youth vaping an “epidemic” and urged action to curb its rise. Policing social media for positive vaping content aimed at young adults is simply not feasible. However, real action against the rise in vaping can be implemented. Vaping flavors, once heavily promoted on social media are now uncommon on social media platforms because of the F.D.A.’s threat to ban them. Social media can be used to inform young adults about the dangers of nicotine and vaping, but to do so effectively, messages and images must be as dazzling as pro-vaping content. Promotional vaping Instagram posts outnumber anti-vaping content 10,000 to 1. To cut through the clutter, a better understanding of what motivates young adults to “like” and share content is necessary, so that persuasive messages are created.


Jordan Alpert, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor- Department of Advertising
University of Florida


Additional Resources

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