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E-cigarette companies use COVID-19 to sell nicotine, study finds

A study from Stanford researchers documents "aggressive and deceptive" ways that companies have used COVID-19 to market vaping products.

The e-cigarette industry has been exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to encourage sales of vaping products, according to a new study from Stanford Medicine researchers.

The paper, published in BMJ Tobacco Control, analyzes more than 300 pandemic-themed advertisements used to market e-cigarette products.

"While we thought we had seen it all -- and we have seen a lot in our collection of over 50,000 tobacco advertisements -- we had never imagined we would see tobacco companies exploiting a global pandemic for marketing purposes," said Robert Jackler, MD, Stanford Medicine professor, chair of otolaryngology and expert on tobacco marketing. He is the study's senior author. Research associate Divya Ramamurthi is the lead author.

Examples of COVID-related marketing

The paper provides examples of ads that promote vaping products as a way to handle the stress of the pandemic. Slick images of cool guys vaping at home feature logos, such as "Keep Calm and Stay Home." Pretty, swirling vapors intertwined with the words "Stay Home & Vape" try to entice consumers to inhale their nicotine. Some e-cigarette marketers offer free gifts of essential pandemic supplies, such as hand sanitizer and even toilet paper as a bonus with your e-cigarette purchase. A few offer COVID-19 discounts to health care professionals and other essential workers.

"Some promote 'contactless delivery' with no signature required," Jackler said. "Waiving age verification, justified by COVID-19 risk, is an invitation to underage use."

Examples of vaping ads collected by Stanford researchers

Additionally, according to the study, several companies offered branded face masks to their customers "tantamount to walking billboards promoting their product." One advertisement even lists steps to prevent COVID-19 with the logo "vape" strategically placed right above the text -- a thinly veiled attempt to deceive customers into believing that vaping can help prevent infection, the study said.

"By linking e-cigarettes to the COVID-19 pandemic, marketers are implicitly, and at times explicitly, implying a health benefit of their products," the study said, adding that vaping is known to cause inflammation in the lung and also suppresses its immune defenses, factors "which may prolong and intensify lung infection."

Research shows vaping is COVID-19 risk

Vaping is not good for your health, nor does it in any way protect you from the coronavirus, Jackler told me.

Recent work by Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, PhD, Stanford Medicine professor of pediatrics, backs him up. A study from her team, published earlier this month, found that among young people tested for the coronavirus, those who vaped were five to seven times more likely to be infected than those who did not use e-cigarettes.

"Teens and young adults need to know that if you use e-cigarettes, you are likely at immediate risk of COVID-19 because you are damaging your lungs," she said in a Stanford Medicine news release.

Years documenting marketing campaigns

Jackler and his colleagues first set out to systematically explore COVID-19-related nicotine marketing after noticing this trend early in the pandemic. They collected hundreds of promotional images representing 21 e-cigarette brands and 41 online vaping stores that sell multiple brands, the study said.

As founder of a group called Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising, Jackler has spent years documenting marketing campaigns of tobacco and e-cigarette companies. Over time, they've reported such blatant methods as companies paying doctors to promote the health benefits of tobacco long after clear scientific evidence had shown that nicotine causes cancer.

And yet, he told me, this newest method of marketing went further than he could have imagined.

"It is more than a bit ironic that e-cigarette companies have chosen to exploit a global pandemic for marketing purposes when their products themselves have been described as causing an epidemic of nicotine addiction among youth," Jackler said.

Top photo by Saeed Moin. Middle images from the collection of Stanford University

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