E-cigarette companies insist that their products are not aimed at young people, however this idea has been rejected by Irish teenagers who believe that they are being specifically targeted, new research has found.
The research, which was commissioned by the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) and the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF), involved focus groups made up of 3rd and 4th year secondary school students.
According to the findings, teenagers do not believe that the flavours and packaging used are designed for adults only. In fact, some believe that a number of these products would not appeal to adults at all, but would to children.
For example, when it came to flavours, the young people identified certain ones which they felt would appeal to young people only, such as grape bubblegum, cotton candy and candy crush.
"I have never come across an adult that would like to have candyfloss," one participant said.
The young people felt that any flavours not directly linked to tobacco, or more typically adult flavours, were likely to appeal to young people. They also felt that fewer younger people would use e-cigarettes if fruity, sweet, minty or dessert flavours were not used.
When it came to the packaging of these products, the young people noted that some looked like sweets and confectionary products.
"That is so cool, it has skittles on it," one noted.
Meanwhile, when it came to the marketing of e-cigarettes, the young people said that they had seen marketing communications for brands on social media, on outdoor advertising and in retail outlets.
"On Instagram you can see people doing tricks with vapes...blowing rings and all sorts...there are verified people on Instagram, who are considered famous just from doing vape tricks," one participant pointed out.
In July 2019, the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, announced that he would seek to introduce legislation banning the sale of e-cigarettes to people under the age of 18.
The IHF and ICS have called for strict restrictions on e-cigarette flavours and advertising to be included in this upcoming legislation, as currently, there are no regulations in Ireland to restrict the sale of products containing sweet, fruity flavours.
"The fact that the only purpose of flavours like strawberry milkshake, cherry crush, chocolate mint and caramel is to lure a whole new generation of children into nicotine addiction has been endorsed resoundingly by the teenagers who took part in this research.
"The usefulness of e-cigarettes is as a harm reduction tool for long-term smokers, who have been unable to quit using established methods. The idea that they need chocolate or bubblegum flavoured e-cigarettes to achieve that, or branding that features cartoon characters and bright attractive packaging, has been exposed as preposterous by these young people," commented IHF chief executive, Tim Collins, at the launch of the research.
Also speaking at the launch, ICS chief executive, Averil Power, said that it is "crystal clear" that long-term smokers make up only a small part of the target market of big e-cigarette brands.
"The bigger objective and the bigger profits lie in causing children and young people who have never smoked to become addicted to nicotine.
"Banning the sale of e-cigarettes to under 18s is important, but it's not enough to protect young people. We have to extend this ban to flavours and aggressive advertising tactics that have led in the US to what the Surgeon General described as an ‘epidemic' of youth e-cigarette use," she said.
Latest figures from the US, where the majority of the market is made up of teen-friendly flavoured e-cigarettes, show that 27% of high school students are current e-cigarette users, up from 11% in 2017.
The most recent figures in Ireland are from 2015, before the US spike. They showed that 24% of 15-17 year olds had tried e-cigarettes, while 11% were current users.
The full research findings can be read here.
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