In an interview with the TVA Nouvelles news channel on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, fourteen-year old Elizabeth explained how she became addicted to nicotine through vaping, at one point consuming the equivalent of 100 cigarettes per day. E-cigarettes are becoming increasingly popular, especially among youth. The fault lies with some very clever marketing.

An alternative to tobacco?

Initially, e-cigarettes were meant to help smokers kick the tobacco habit by simulating real cigarettes. E-cigarettes contain a liquid solution that is heated to produce an aerosol that can be breathed in. The liquid contains glycol (often used in the food industry), artificial flavours and varying levels of nicotine. While health care professionals may agree that the vapour produced by e-cigarettes is less harmful than classic cigarettes, they have serious concerns about its long-term effects. E-cigarettes are new products and their health impacts over time are currently unknown.

Tobacco use kills 100 Canadians[1] every day, but has decreased substantially over the past ten years. Prohibitions on the promotion of tobacco products, graphic images on packaging, restricted smoking areas and price increases have no doubt contributed to reduced tobacco use. But is a new type of addiction on the rise?

The JUUL Company

In 2017, two Americans with a graduate degree in design from California’s Stanford University launched the JULL Labs e-cigarette company. They created a vaping device no larger than a USB flash drive that is virtually smoke-free and can be charged from a computer. They added flavouring compounds such as « mango » or « crème brulée » that were a huge hit with young people. Their target audience was clear, but unacknowledged: youth aged 14 to 18. Once the product was launched, a marketing campaign was set in motion focusing on social media and especially Instagram, which is widely used by 14- to 18-year-olds. Sales of JUUL e-cigarettes skyrocketed and reached 70% of market share within two years in the United States. In 2018, sales of the JUUL e-cigarette increased by 783% and the product was available throughout the United States. The company soon attracted the attention of American tobacco giant Altria (formerly Philip Morris Companies Inc.). After buying a nearly 2-billion-dollar stake in Canadian cannabis producer Cronos in December 2018, Altria invested 12.5 billion dollars in the young JULL Labs company.

Youth, First Affected

The e-cigarette’s user-friendly design, its appealing flavours and it highly addictive use are all factors in the resounding commercial success of JUUL e-cigarettes among youth. In 2018, one out of every five students in the United States[1] used e-cigarettes. The brand’s marketing campaigns are an important part of that commercial success. The use of influencers on Instagram incited youth to try out the new product. And while e-cigarettes may be less harmful to health than regular cigarettes, the nicotine addiction they cause is very real and perhaps even stronger. A cartridge contains between 50 and 100 mg of nicotine, the equivalent of four packs of cigarettes.

Young people must be made aware of the risks of nicotine use. In an interview with TVA Nouvelles, Dr. Poirier, a cardiologist with the Quebec Heart and Lung Institute, underscored the harmfulness of nicotine products: “Consuming such large quantities of nicotine causes cardiovascular problems, mostly palpitations, that can however lead to cardiac arrest.”

E-cigarettes have quickly become a trend that shows no sign of weakening. With the help of targeted marketing, are e-cigarettes leading to a new nicotine addiction epidemic?

[1] 3. REHM, J., D. BALIUNAS, S. BROCHU, B. FISCHER, W. GNAM, J. PATRA et al. The costs of substance abuse in Canada 2002, Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, Ottawa, 2006.

[1] Source: AFP

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