Why Is Vaping Still Popular? The Journey Continues

Maya Shepard, Staff Writer

Where we left off, the nicotine conglomerate Altria Group’s (formerly Philip Morris) investment in the Juul vaping company had revealed a link between the smoking giants of the 1900’s and what they likely view as the next phase of addictive nicotine marketing towards youth demographics.  

What could the history of a corporation like Philip Morris’s marketing strategies tell us about its newest contemporaries? The answer is in the audience, and these companies’ understanding of it. When we look at the role cigarettes play in entertainment media, there is a very clear progression from elevation to rebellion. 

 In the early days of Hollywood, a glittering ideal of sophistication and praise was coveted by consumers and reflected within stars like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe’s glamorous onscreen personas taking puffs of long cigarettes while watching their dramatic plotlines unfold.  

As the audience evolved over the later ‘70s and ‘80s, so did the content; with the dangers of cigarettes becoming clearer, companies changed angles to embody the other virtue fascinating the modern American consumer: rebellion. Cigarettes became unorthodox, daring, and an outward projection of inner discontent with everything from a miserable school day to an invading alien army. If you asked consumers to pinpoint a character as the smoker of an ensemble, it would be the distant outsider they’d least want to pick a fight with- in other words, the cool one.’ 

Characters who underwent ‘transformations’ to grow more popular/socially accepted would often pick up smoking as well, for example post-makeover Sandy Olsson in “Grease.” (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Via YouTube)

The effects of this pivot are clear: in 2015, 44% of adolescents were found to have started smoking as a direct result of seeing characters smoke onscreen. In a 2019 study, it was found that teenagers exposed to a greater amount of smoking in cinema were 2.5 times as likely to start smoking as those exposed to a lesser amount. A September 2020 study by the Truth Initiative revealed that “youth and young adults” with more exposure to popular shows involving tobacco imagery are three times more likely to start vaping than peers with zero exposure. That same year, research conducted by Stanford University revealed teenagers who spent more time on social media had an increased likelihood of taking up vaping (or continuing to vape). As of this May’s CDC National Youth Tobacco Survey, 1 in 5 high school students has admitted to vaping every month.   

“I feel like most people vape because they take part in substance abuse to deal with the stress of school and their home lives. Also, peer pressure. I personally don’t like vaping. It’s just very detrimental to people’s health even if it’s “healthier than smoking.” Vaping hasn’t been around long enough to properly study the effects on youth; just like when smoking was first introduced. […] If you’re going to be vaping, just don’t do it around people who don’t want anything to do with it, because secondhand smoke can be dangerous.” (Britnell Azcona, RHS Senior) 

While social media platforms like Instagram do not permit e-cigarette manufacturers to release advertisements to users, they allow them to pay influencers to do so, which studies have shown is highly effective on teenage content consumers; this is but one example of the relaxed laws social media entities employ regarding e-cigarettes (vs. the much stricter ones around tobacco smoking). Vaping’s position as a newcomer to smoking legislation, and its ‘safer’ conveyed image as an alternative to cigarettes, gives it near-immunity to the harsh regulations cigarettes have accumulated over time. And as the product of a corporation with in-depth knowledge of the harmful traits of nicotine, and decades’ worth of experience in advertising tactics (with no reservations over catering to minors, as Part I’s youth advertising statistics made clear), it is poised to take full advantage of them.  

However, there is hope for those resistant to this pattern’s continuation- in September 2019, as concerns over the safety of vaping were mounting, the television networks Viacom, CBS, and Warner Media pulled advertisements for e-cigarette products from their programming. This was around the same time Instagram established more concrete boundaries around vaping’s advertisement to users; however, as can be seen from the companies’ influencer-hiring loophole, they are still capable of hijacking establishments of popular culture to get inside consumers’ heads. 

“There are lots of children-type flavors, like Frooty Tooty [sic: Tutti Frutti] and stuff like that. There are a lot of the type of flavors they have in candy. [Compaines] trying to advertise [ecigarettes] as healthier than smoking also adds onto why kids think that it’s alright to [use them],” says Zacona.  

While we live in a time of increased awareness to the need for rebellion against oppressive entities worldwide, it is easy for big corporations to artificially imitate that sentiment to further their own profits, often at the expense of their young target demographics (as has been seen with nicotine-selling companies like Altria). By infiltrating the collective teenage need for independence and rebellion, they are performing the very surveillance we want to escape.  

For the past century, most of the cigarette companies in America may have taken an unsettling amount of joy in the blind unraveling of their customers, but it is now the 2020’s. And (apocalyptic disasters and hand sanitizer thefts aside) this decade is our chance to show those companies we’re taking their own advice and rejecting their established control over our demographic. Additionally, product placement is a lot more obvious than the previously quoted marketing executives seem to think it is. 

The future of brain manipulation, everyone. (Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures/Via IMDb)

For more information around student experiences, opinions, and health risks around vaping, see the Sting articles linked below! 

Part I: Why Is Vaping Still Popular? A Journey Through Adspace and Time – The Sting (theroswellsting.com)

Pneumonia cases linked to vaping reveals dangers of e-cigarettes, by Mayce MacArthur.

The legal vaping age should be raised to 21, by Natalie Navarra.