E-Cigarette Manufacturers Still Using Cartoons in Promotions to Target Youth

A new study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that, despite federal enforcement policies against e-cigarette products that target or are likely to promote use among children, it is still a common practice for manufacturers of e-cigarettes and e-liquid vaping products to use cartoon-based marketing tactics designed to appeal to adolescents. In fact, the study found that more than 100 companies used cartoons in their e-cigarette associated product promotions on Instagram in 2019, and perhaps not surprising given the popularity of Instagram among youth and the purpose of using cartoon imaging, posts featuring cartoons received more “likes” than those without cartoons.

The teen vaping epidemic in the United States remains a serious public health concern. In September 2019, the CDC reported that one in four high school students and one in 10 middle school students in the United States use e-cigarettes, a significant increase from the previous year. Unfortunately, the popularity of e-cigarette use among school-aged adolescents in the U.S. continues to grow, driven in equal parts by appealing, fruit-flavored e-cigarette products and aggressive marketing tactics designed to target children.

Research published in the past couple of years has shown that the tobacco industry’s use of cartoon images in marketing materials is an effective method for increasing awareness and appeal of combustible cigarettes among youth and that exposure to cartoons is associated with a susceptibility to use e-cigarettes. In an effort to determine whether e-cigarette manufacturers have continued using cartoon-based strategies to market their e-cigarette products to youth, researchers from the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine reviewed more than 1,900 posts promoting vaping products on Instagram, an image-based social media platform popular among teens and young adults. Of the reviewed Instagram posts, the researchers found that 1,608 (83.1%) were promotional in nature, 142 (7.3%) included one or more cartoon images, and 44 (2.3%) featured a cartoon as the company logo.

Using cartoon images in promotional materials to target adolescents is not a novel approach. In 1998, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement required the four largest tobacco companies in the U.S. to stop using cartoon images to promote their cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products. Unfortunately, the ban did not apply to e-cigarettes and vaping liquids, as they had yet to enter the market in the United States. Until there is a similar ban on the use of cartoon imaging to promote e-cigarettes and e-liquids, companies will continue to market their e-cigarette products to youth on social media, simply because it works and because they can.

In April 2020, the FDA announced that it had issued 10 warning letters to manufacturers and retailers who manufacture, sell and/or import unauthorized e-cigarette products geared towards youth or likely to promote use by youth. The agency also sent warning letters to companies marketing e-liquids with packaging that appeals to youth or features cartoon characters like SpongeBob SquarePants. “The FDA is focused on manufacturers and retailers that make and sell ENDS products that are targeted to youth and increase their appeal,” said Mitch Zeller, J.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. “These warning letters should send a clear message to all tobacco product manufacturers and retailers that the FDA is keeping a close watch on the marketplace. If you’re marketing or selling these products to youth, the FDA will not tolerate it.”

Earlier this year, the FDA announced that it would ban certain e-cigarette flavors that appeal to children, including fruit and mint, in an effort to curb the teen vaping trend. The new enforcement policy, announced on January 2, 2020, gave companies 30 days to cease the manufacture, distribution and sale of cartridge-based e-cigarettes in flavors other than tobacco or menthol, or risk facing FDA enforcement actions. “The United States has never seen an epidemic of substance use arise as quickly as our current epidemic of youth use of e-cigarettes,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in a statement announcing the new policy. “Our action today seeks to strike the right public health balance by maintaining e-cigarettes as a potential off-ramp for adults using combustible tobacco while ensuring these products don’t provide an on-ramp to nicotine addiction for our youth.”

If you or someone you love has suffered a nicotine addiction or another serious adverse health effect allegedly associated with e-cigarette use, contact a knowledgeable e-cigarette injury attorney as soon as possible to discuss your legal rights. You may be eligible to file an e-cigarette lawsuit against the manufacturing company in order to pursue the financial compensation you deserve for the harm you have suffered.