Tobacco companies targeting our generation through e-cigarette advertising

Before I began college, I couldn’t have identified an e-cigarette if I saw one. During my first semester at San Jose State University, however, I sat next to a student in my community health class who was, to my surprise, openly vaping. While smoking a traditional cigarette in a classroom, much less a health class, is unthinkable, e-cigarettes have emerged as a strangely acceptable practice, especially among youth.

Although I’ve always known cigarettes can kill, the “truth” campaign helped me learn just how much the tobacco companies were willing to do to keep people addicted to nicotine. These days it seems that health organizations are fighting the same battles as they did years ago, but this time against e-cigarettes.

I’m taking notice because now it’s personal. Tobacco companies are targeting my generation — the teenagers and young adults who will write the next chapter of California’s history.

Have you seen e-cigarette ads? Do they seem to be speaking specifically to you? That’s because e-cigarettes are heavily advertised on television and radio and targeted at youth and young adults. Now think about the last time you saw a traditional cigarette ad. Having trouble? That’s because traditional cigarette ads were banned from TV and radio more than 40 years ago.

You can even find e-cigarette samples at concerts, bars and festivals now, while sampling of traditional cigarettes is banned. I’ve also learned that of the nearly $119 million spent on e-cigarette advertising in 2014, 89 percent came from tobacco companies. In fact, some of the most well-known e-cigarette brands are owned by tobacco companies. For example, tobacco giant RJ Reynolds owns Vuse, the nation’s top-selling electronic cigarette brand.

Recent research shows teens and young adults, who otherwise would never have started smoking traditional cigarettes, are significantly more likely to start if they have vaped. The tobacco companies are paying attention. In three years, the amount of money spent on advertising e-cigarettes increased more than 1,200 percent. It seems clear to me that the tobacco industry is investing in this new market to recruit the next generation of smokers.

And there’s a lot they’re not telling us about what’s actually in these products. E-cigarette companies are not currently required to disclose the ingredients — and toxins — in their products, and there are no safety or health standards associated with e-cigarettes.

Take a look at the some facts:
· Most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, a neurotoxin as addictive as heroin and cocaine.
· E-cigarette use among young adults, ages 18-24, increased from 2.4 percent in 2012 to 8.3 percent in 2013. Young adults are three times more likely to use e-cigarettes than those 30 and older.
· E-cigarettes appeal to a younger audience with fruit, candy and alcohol-flavored e-juice.
· It’s not harmless water vapor. E-cigarettes emit an aerosol, which contains harmful chemicals that not only pose health risks to those who use them, but to the people around them as well.

What really scares me though is that all of the e-cigarette marketing, and rapidly increasing usage, is making the act of smoking seem normal again, and it keeps our generation addicted to nicotine. This directly undermines all of the progress California has made to reduce smoking rates, save lives and cut healthcare costs.

This year, the California Department of Public Health released its first campaign to educate Californians about the health risks of e-cigarettes and the aggressive marketing practices used to recruit the next generation of smokers. As students, we are taught to question everything, so I encourage you to question vaping and educate yourself on the health impacts. Just because e-cigarettes may be less harmful than cigarettes in the short term does not mean they are safe. Together we can protect the health of all Californians and especially make sure that youth do not fall victim to the tobacco industry’s marketing.

Isra Ahmad is the Youth Liaison for the Board of Directors at Truth Initiative (formerly known as American Legacy Foundation) and is a current UC Berkeley student where she will receive her Master in Public Health (M.P.H.) in May 2016. Go to stillblowingsmoke.org to learn more.

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