Exposure to E-Cigarette Ads Linked to Lower Public Support for Smoke/Vape-Free Policies

E-cigarette advertising may be doing more than just selling a product; it may also reduce the public’s support for restrictions on the use of e-cigarettes in public places.

A study published in the journal Tobacco Control is the first attempt to examine the socio-demographic factors associated with higher exposure to e-cigarette advertisements and the potential impact of said advertising on support for restrictions for using e-cigarettes, commonly referred to as “vaping,” in public. The study found that among U.S. adults, being exposed to more e-cigarette advertising was linked to lower support for restrictions on the use of these products in public.

The impact of reduced support is potentially far-reaching. In advertisements and other forms of communication, e-cigarettes are often portrayed as a “healthier alternative” and a way to circumvent smoking restrictions that are placed on combustible cigarettes. Municipalities are already grappling with the question of how or even whether e-cigarettes should be regulated in much the same way that tobacco products are regulated (i.e. restrictions on the use indoors, in restaurants, and public places). How easily can tobacco restrictions in a restaurant be enforced if the use of e-cigarettes – which can look very much like regular cigarettes and/or cigars – is allowed? If e-cigarette use is not regulated, then are they a gateway to the use of tobacco products?          

The study was conducted by Andy Tan, Ph.D. (Gr ’13), a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication; Cabral A. Bigman, Ph.D. (Gr ’11) University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Ashley Sanders-Jackson, Ph.D. (Gr ’11), Stanford University.

Using data from the Annenberg National Health Communication Survey, the researchers surveyed data from a sample of 1,449 U.S. adults (Profile: 51 percent female, 50-years-old, eight percent African American, 10 percent Hispanic). The study found that higher exposure from advertising, other media, and interpersonal discussions about e-cigarettes that were perceived as positive were associated with lower support for policies to restrict vaping in public places. Exposure to these sources was not associated with support for policies to restrict smoking in public. Other factors that predicted lower support to restrict vaping in public included having seen other people “vape,” being a current or former smoker, and having tried e-cigarettes in the past.

“Both mass media and interpersonal communications play a role in shaping smoking and tobacco-related opinions and behaviors,” the authors note. “On one hand, we might expect exposure to e-cigarette communications to be associated with lower support for smoking in public places if such communications glamorize smoking behavior. On the other hand, if these communications distinguish e-cigarettes as a healthier or more socially acceptable alternative to traditional combustible smoking, we may instead find that greater exposure is associated with stronger support for policies to restrict smoking in public venues.”

“Respondents who had higher exposure to information that they perceived to be positive reported slightly lower support for restricting e-cigarette use in public venues,” wrote the authors. “This finding is important because e-cigarette communications are increasing (in, say, advertising).”

“These [e-cigarette] messages may resonate with the public such that they do not view vaping restrictions in public venues to be necessary. The implication of this is that e-cigarette communications could potentially undermine public support for ongoing local and state legislative efforts to restrict vaping in smoke-free venues. Additionally, if vaping is seen as more acceptable in smoke-free venues, this could result in a new source of tobacco-related pollutants or confusion over the compliance and enforcement of smoke-free policies.”

Media Contact: Julie Sloane, jsloane@asc.upenn.edu, 215-746-1798