For decades, the health effects of smoking have been well documented. Increased risk of respiratory damage, mouth and lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke are all linked to cigarette smoking. Nicotine—the stimulant found in tobacco—is highly addictive and can cause high blood pressure, changes in heart rate and rhythm, and other harmful effects.
Fortunately, there are a number of commercial products that can help smokers quit for good, such as nicotine replacement therapies including patches, lozenges, and gum; tobacco cessation programs; and prescription medications.
However, there is another, more controversial, product on the market that has been touted as a way to help smokers quit: e-cigarettes.
The convenience of e-cigarettes or “vaping,” coupled with the availability of flavored nicotine “e-juice,” has helped skyrocket their popularity, especially among young adults. Between 2017 and 2018 the FDA reports use of e-cigarettes increased 78 percent among high school students and 48 percent among middle school students. This prompted the U.S. surgeon general to issue a rare advisory in December 2018 to address youths’ use of e-cigarettes.
But what are the perceptions regarding the safety of e-cigarettes compared to traditional smoking, and what is the most effective way to inform consumers about the health risks and harmful effects of e-cigarette use?
Carson College professor of marketing Elizabeth Howlett, who serves on the FDA Risk Communication Advisory Committee, aims to find out.
In a 2017 paper published in Nicotine & Tobacco Research, Howlett and her research partners found that the health-risk beliefs are extremely high for cigarettes, but lower for e-cigarettes.
Vaping: A Growing Health Epidemic
The e-cigarettes market is expected to hit $50 billion by 2025, according to Howlett, but there is still a huge gap in consumer knowledge about the health risks of nicotine and e-cigarettes.
“Consumers who vape, smoke, or both believe that health-related and addiction risks associated with e-cigarettes are lower than consumers who do not vape or smoke,” say the researchers.
However, the researchers found that when addiction warnings were included on e-cigarette advertisements, consumers were less likely to try the product.
The results, say the researchers, suggest that the addition of an addiction warning may be effective in changing risk beliefs associated with e-cigarettes.
Howlett suggests messaging on addiction and the potential health risks of e-cigarettes should be tailored for specific audiences. After all, current smokers who turn to e-cigarettes because they actually want to quit smoking respond differently than smokers who use e-cigarettes because of convenience.
“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ messaging that works to curb the use of e-cigarettes,” says Howlett. “More work is needed to clarify consumers’ beliefs about addiction and health risks associated with e-cigarettes, and the link between the perceived risks and potential use of e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes.”