e-cigarette advertising and youth

Many young people who’ve never vaped may be susceptible to starting, study suggests

Tighter regulations and education on harms needed to discourage uptake

Almost two-thirds (62%) of people aged 15-30 in the UK who have never used e-cigarettes may be susceptible to taking up vaping in the future, according to results of an international survey by The George Institute for Global Health. The research findings were published today in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Results from an online survey of 4,007 people internationally identified exposure to e-cigarette advertising as having the second greatest effect on susceptibility, after current or past tobacco use, while perceived harmfulness reduced the likelihood of susceptibility.

Prof Simone Pettigrew, lead author and Program Director of Health Promotion and Behaviour Change at The George Institute said, “These findings suggest that an overwhelming number of young people may be at risk of e-cigarette use in the UK and in other countries. While some types of promotion of these products is prohibited, advertising on posters, billboards, and buses is still prevalent in the UK. A complete ban on e-cigarette advertising should be considered, as it is clearly influencing young people’s attitudes towards these addictive and potentially harmful products.”

Results from 333 people surveyed in the UK who had never used e-cigarettes before showed that 55% were curious about them, 50% would use them if offered by a friend, and 41% had intentions to use them in the next year. Researchers also found that almost two-thirds (63%) of UK respondents had seen e-cigarette advertising, a far higher number than in China (51%), India (47%) and Australia (30%) where the study also took place. UK respondents were less likely to believe that e-cigarettes are addictive (74%) or harmful (67%), compared to those in Australia (87% and 83%, respectively), where susceptibility was lowest (54%).

The UK e-cigarette industry generated an estimated revenue of £1.3 billion in 2021. Young people make up a considerable portion of consumers, with around 11% of those aged 16–34 - approximately 1.6 million individuals - using e-cigarettes daily or occasionally, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. Young people are also more likely to be exposed to unregulated e-cigarette promotion on social media, via advertisements that are in breach of the UK advertising code.

Dr Ana-Catarina Pinho-Gomes, Honorary Research Fellow at The George Institute UK said, “Many young people worldwide are trialling e-cigarettes despite the unknown health effects of their long-term use. Harmful chemicals in unregistered products are a major concern, as is the often unlabelled amount of nicotine, which is highly addictive. To discourage further uptake of e-cigarettes among young people who have never smoked, the government needs to do more to educate on their negative effects.”