Research has shown that content about e-cigarettes on Instagram violates the rules and is targeted at teenagers

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A new study presented May 4 at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting finds that advertising methods for e-cigarettes on digital platforms violate federal government and Instagram policies.

The main violations include Instagram omitting age-restricted content tags and failing to address the addictive potential of e-cigarettes and other vaping products. Previous research has shown that exposure to e-cigarettes on social media is correlated with increased use.

The term “e-cigarette” refers to vaping products, synthetic nicotine products, and other electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS). In a new study, Jessica Tran and colleagues examined ENDS-based Instagram content for levels of engagement among underage users, accuracy of ENDS information presented, and compliance with federal and Instagram regulations.

Researchers examined ENDS-related Instagram posts from December 2023, using a simulated 14-year-old female profile to search for hashtags such as #vapelife, #vapecommunity and #ecig. The team reviewed 51 posts from these hashtags to assess the presence of health warnings and common topics.

The majority (34) of the 51 posts portrayed e-cigarette use in a positive light, while 12 had a negative tone towards ENDS. The most frequently used marketing strategies included appealing to aesthetics and lifestyle. Two-thirds of the posts did not contain warnings about age restrictions or the addictive potential of nicotine, in violation of FDA regulations.

Violating Instagram’s branded content policy, 23 of the 51 posts were created by vape stores or ambassadors who serve as sales representatives for vape brands. Only 14 of the 51 posts were intended to educate consumers, of which 30 were created for promotional purposes.

“Youth exposure to content regarding e-cigarettes and other ENDS must be limited through effective age restrictions and careful enforcement of regulatory policies,” Tran said. “More importantly, ENDS-related content must evolve to educate consumers about the potential health effects of e-cigarette use.”