How the vaping industry is targeting teens – and getting away with it

16 November 2019
Carly Weeks

It’s illegal for Canada’s new smoking barons to sell their wares with lifestyle advertising or kid-friendly flavours – yet with the help of social-media influencers and viral marketing, many do

Birthday-cake flavoured vaping liquid. Instagram influencers paid to run contests sponsored by the e-cigarette industry. Pop-up lounges featuring young, attractive models giving out vape samples.

E-cigarette companies are targeting young people in Canada through advertisements that promote flavours, make health claims and push lifestyle benefits – all of which, critics say, flouts federal laws meant to prevent the promotion of vaping as a desirable activity for young people. It is an aggressive marketing push that federal regulators are struggling to stop, even as the rates of youth vaping climb.

E-cigarettes were legalized in Canada as a less harmful alternative to smoking, but as a condition, laws were put in place to help ensure the products didn’t fall into the hands of young non-smokers.

Under federal law, companies can produce any flavour they want, but they aren’t allowed to promote varieties that could appeal to young people, defined as under 18, such as those that taste like candy, dessert or soft drinks. It’s also against the law to engage in any lifestyle advertising, use testimonials or promote nicotine products using people, characters or animals.

But a Globe and Mail investigation found companies are advertising e-cigarette flavours that taste like ice cream, cookies and candy. They are paying social media influencers to promote products and host product giveaways. At pop-up events staffed by glamorous models, they are distributing vaping samples and encouraging visitors to pose with Instagram-friendly backdrops. The most flagrant abuse occurs on social media, where companies rely on viral campaigns, testimonials and powerful influencers to attract new customers.

Health Canada representatives say they have significantly increased compliance and enforcement activities around the sale and promotion of vaping products. In an e-mailed statement, a department spokesperson said inspectors seized more than 60,000 non-compliant products from specialty vape shops and convenience stores between July and October. Inspectors visited about 1,000 locations during that period.

More than three quarters of the specialty vape shops inspected by Health Canada were selling and promoting products that violate federal law, according to spokeswoman Maryse Durette. The most common violations were promoting child-friendly flavours and using testimonials to promote products. Under federal law, testimonials include any promotions that feature people, characters or animals.

Inspectors aim to visit 3,000 retailers by the end of the year. The department also has a unit that focuses on online retailers and so far, it has done 68 inspections.

Members of the e-cigarette industry interviewed by the Globe say they are complying with federal rules and are committed to ensuring their products don’t end up in the hands of minors. The industry says their target market is existing adult smokers.

“The majority of our membership … they’re very responsible, they’re complying with the act completely,” said Charles Pisano, vice-president of the Canadian Vaping Association, which represents more than 300 retail and online vaping businesses in Canada.

But for public health researchers and anti-smoking advocates, the marketing effort is déjà vu. They say a new generation is becoming addicted to nicotine by the same techniques that sold cigarettes decades ago, before authorities were forced to act. “They have used the exact same playbook that the Big Tobacco companies have used for many years to appeal to young people, using colourful icons and using attractive good looking models,” said Andy Tan, a researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who studies the impact of tobacco marketing.

The size of Canada’s e-cigarette market is difficult to calculate (the global market is valued at $14-billion), but uptake has been significant in the 18 months since nicotine vaping products became legal. In an investor presentation delivered in March, British American Tobacco, the parent of Imperial Tobacco Canada, said nearly 100,000 Vype devices were sold in Canada in 10 months, and about 60,000 Juul devices.

Of greater concern is who is using the products, some health experts say. Nearly 40 per cent of 16- to 19-year-old Canadian teens reported trying e-cigarettes in a recent survey, and nearly one in 10 said they vape weekly.

In response to what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has called a youth vaping epidemic, the agency has launched investigations into the marketing practices of Juul, the top-selling vape brand in the United States, and has promised to crack down on the industry. Some public health experts are urging Canadian regulators to follow the American example by first enforcing and then expanding marketing restrictions. They argue a full ban on flavours and advertising are urgently needed to slow the spread of the industry.

“The products and the way they’re marketed is appealing to young people in North America. You don’t have to be a researcher or a rocket scientist to figure it out,” said David Hammond, a public health researcher at the University of Waterloo and one of Canada’s top vaping experts.

“When I see the marketing in Canada, I would say if [the industry’s] intention has been to target adult smokers, it has been a very poorly executed campaign.”

Four years ago – before the growth in teen e-cigarette use and the outbreak of vaping-related lung disease – a parliamentary committee warned the federal government that the entry of e-cigarettes into the Canadian market threatened to undo decades of progress in tobacco control. In order to stop young people and non-smokers from becoming addicted to e-cigarettes, the committee told the federal government to adopt a series of regulatory measures to limit the access and appeal of e-cigarettes, including a ban on flavoured vaping products, a cap on nicotine levels and stringent advertising restrictions.

But when the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act came into effect in May, 2018, the federal government decided to let e-cigarette companies advertise and use a variety of flavours. The industry, which has invested heavily in lobbying efforts, had argued that advertising and use of flavours were key to winning over existing adult smokers and helping them quit.

Health Canada states on its website that vaping is a less-harmful alternative to cigarettes. Some physicians and health groups support the idea that e-cigarettes could be an effective harm-reduction option for smokers. Tobacco-related illnesses kill an estimated 100 Canadians a day, according to the federal government. Still, health experts warn the long-term effects of vaping are unknown. And young people are particularly vulnerable to nicotine addiction because their brains are still developing and sensitive to the effects of addictive drugs. Once hooked, young people are also vastly more likely to continue nicotine use into adulthood.

“Those of us in public health would like to see vaping become an off-ramp for adult smokers,” said Robert Jackler, a surgeon and professor at Stanford University who studies tobacco marketing. “Instead, it’s become a heavily travelled on-ramp for nicotine-naive teenagers.”

Concerns have also been stoked by the outbreak of severe lung disease associated with vaping products that has been linked to 39 deaths and more than 2,000 illnesses in the U.S., as well as a handful of cases in Canada. While most of the illnesses and deaths are tied to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) vaping products that were purchased on the black market, the illnesses have cast a pall on the entire industry and prompted calls for regulators to take immediate action. Now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is planning to introduce a ban on flavoured e-cigarettes.

While much of the attention on e-cigarette promotions have focused on billboards, transit ads and convenience store promotions, the Globe analysis shows that much of the marketing is happening where it’s harder to track: on computers and smart phones.

Liam Gunther, who goes by the handle “Chufflord” on Instagram, is a Calgary-based influencer who has nearly 50,000 followers on the platform. His near-daily posts feature him doing “smoke tricks” with vapour clouds, posts about new e-liquid flavours and product promotions or giveaways. On his Instagram feed in mid-November, he was running a contest with Stig Canada, a vape brand owned by U.S. company Vgod Inc., that will give away free products to users who follow him and the company on Instagram and who tag their friends in a comment under the post. On Friday, there were nearly 900 comments on the post.

Federal rules state that it is illegal for companies to use people in any vaping promotions. Mr. Gunther, who is 21, declined an interview request. Stig Canada and Vgod didn’t reply to questions from the Globe.

Tamara Balazsovits, a 26-year-old professional model and social media influencer based in Toronto, said she was approached earlier this year by an agency working with Canadian e-cigarette company Stlth to promote its brand on Instagram. Ms. Balazsovits says her Instagram account’s analytic information shows most of her 41,000 followers are age 18-24, although some are younger than 18.

On its website, the company invited people to apply for its influencer program, saying “you get paid by advertising Stlth products to your audience on your blog, website, newsletter, search landing page.” The statement was removed after the Globe and Mail asked the company about the program. Stlth provides influencers with a unique product link and offers them 20 per cent of all sales processed through the link.

Ms. Balazsovits says Stlth asked if she smoked and whether she was interested in vaping. While Ms. Balazsovits smoked for a short period in high school, she is not a current smoker or vaper and told the company that. Stlth, which says on its website that its products are designed to “give adult smokers a viable alternative to traditional tobacco,” recruited her for a sponsored post anyway. She posted the ad on her page on June 14. In it, she is holding a Stlth e-cigarette and wearing a bra with a blazer, a cloud of vapour coming out of her mouth.

Ms. Balazsovits, who did not disclose the compensation she received from Stlth, said she typically charges companies $200 to $1,000 for a social media post and the amount depends on the work involved.

Now that so many stories have emerged about the health risks of e-cigarettes, Ms. Balazsovits said she regrets the ad and would not work with an e-cigarette company again.

In an interview, Stlth chief operating officer Mark Hamdan said the company had hired external marketing firms to run its Instagram account. But after reviewing their activities a few months ago, Stlth severed ties with those firms and shut down its own Instagram account.

VanGo Vapes, an e-liquid manufacturer based in B.C., runs a social media influencer program that requires people to complete several “tasks,” such as Instagram posts, each week. On its website, the company says it receives hundreds of applications a week. The program is so popular that VanGo Vapes has created a “prospector” program, under which potential influencers buy a package of merchandise to promote on social media. If the posts are successful enough, the individual may become a paid influencer. To qualify, the company says prospectors must have a strong picture style, maintain good engagement on social media and have a high number of followers and wholesale referrals, among other criteria.

The company also has a series of testimonials on its website, which are said to be prohibited under federal law.

Saadiq Daya, chief executive officer of VanGo Vapes, said in an interview the influencer program was suspended a few months ago, although in mid-November it was still being promoted on the company’s website. VanGo Vapes used to pay influencers, he said, but the company has since moved to providing free products.

“We’ve put it all on hold until we can get full clarification on what’s allowed, what’s not allowed,” he said.

E-cigarette companies are also creating pop-up marketing experiences designed to be shared on social media channels.

In August, Imperial Tobacco Canada, which sells the Vype e-cigarette brand, hired a design firm to create a 3,400-square foot outdoor installation on King Street West, one of Toronto’s busiest downtown streets. The installation, which was for ages 19 and over, featured young models hired to help distribute product samples, a lounge area and Instagram-friendly neon signs. Similar events were held throughout the summer in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and London, Ont., according to numerous Instagram posts. Dozens of social media users shared photos of themselves at the pop-up events, with lush plants and neon signs in the background.

An Instagram post from Posh Promotions shows a vaping-related event in Calgary this past summer.

Health Canada shut down a similar event at Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square earlier this year, telling a reporter it violated rules against lifestyle advertising and the use of testimonials or endorsements. According to federal law, “lifestyle” is advertising that links a product to a way of life that includes glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring.

Eric Gagnon, head of corporate and regulatory affairs with Imperial Tobacco Canada, said he does not believe the company has broken any rules with its recent promotions.

“A lounge is not lifestyle [advertising],” he said. “We’ve created an environment that enables us to talk about our product with adult smokers or vapers if they’re interested in hearing about it.”

Mr. Gagnon said Health Canada inspectors visited most of the pop-ups and allowed them to continue operating.

At the August launch party for Relx, a major Chinese e-cigarette brand that has just arrived in Canada, prospective distributors and buyers were invited to try the product “while interacting with influencers.” Guests at a trendy downtown Toronto venue were treated to “fancy cocktails and artistic finger foods” at an event “reminiscent of a late-summer garden party,” according to the website of Fervent Events, which organized the event. The company’s co-founder flew to Toronto from Hong Kong for the event and was on hand as organizers gave out the evening’s grand prize: a five-day trip to Turkey.

Relx did not respond to an interview request.

An Instagram post from VapeVine, an online store that has a physical outlet in Windsor, Ont.

VapeVine, an online e-liquid store that also has a bricks-and-mortar location in Windsor, Ont., has numerous social media ads featuring people enjoying themselves. One ad posted last month features a man vaping with a glass of what appears to be Scotch in his hand. The caption under the photo reads “The weekend is here. Let the good times roll!”

In response to questions about its use of lifestyle advertising, Vape Vine sent an e-mail statement saying the company has begun an internal audit process. “Anything that could be misinterpreted as not being product-informative will be systematically removed,” the statement said.

A survey this fall by Smoke-Free Nova Scotia found that 96 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds who use e-cigarettes prefer flavoured vape juice. Nearly 60 per cent of female vapers in that age group said flavours were the aspect of e-cigarettes they like the most.

DashVapes, which describes itself as the largest independently owned e-cigarette retailer and e-liquid manufacturer in Canada, sells an entire category of products under a “sweets and desserts” banner on its online store. One flavour is described as a “delicious blend of mini donuts, covered with cinnamon and sugar,” another is “a delicious marshmallow cookie” while another is described as “praline maple pecan ice cream.” The DashVapes website notes some flavour names have been changed because of federal law. For instance, Vanilla Ice Cream is now “Van IC”. A picture of an ice cream cone was removed from the product’s label earlier this month.

The DashVapes product page for its ice-cream-flavoured product, before and after its makeover as ‘Van IC.’

Shai Bekman, president of DashVapes, said he believes companies are free to describe products in any manner they wish, as long as child-friendly flavours do not appear on product labels.

“An adult needs to know what they’re going to be vaping,” Mr. Bekman said.

Enticing-sounding flavours aren’t hard to find online.

In September, River City Vapes, an e-cigarette store in Edmonton, posted a promotion on Facebook and Instagram for a peanut butter cup and caramel cheesecake e-liquid. Canada Vapes, an online vape store and e-liquid manufacturer in London, Ont., published a post on Instagram and Facebook in early November promoting a holiday-themed gingerbread cookie vaping flavour. The post says the e-liquid is “a combination of molasses and ginger to create the perfect seasonal delight.” Neither store responded to questions from The Globe about the promotion.

A study published earlier this year by Dr. Jackler at Stanford University found that Juul Labs, one of the largest e-cigarette companies in the world, engaged in similar tactics to appeal to young people. The company held numerous pop-up sampling events featuring colourful designs and lounge spaces that were attended almost exclusively by young people. Juul also heavily promoted its flavours and ran numerous advertising campaigns using words like “satisfying” – language that has long been used in tobacco marketing to encourage people to give in to their nicotine cravings and continue using the products, Dr. Jackler said.

Juul has since suspended all advertising in the U.S. because of government scrutiny and growing criticism, although the company still advertises in public places in Canada. The Globe stopped accepting e-cigarette ads this summer amid concerns about vaping-related illnesses in the U.S.

Some Canadian companies are also creating Instagram posts that suggest vaping has health benefits and that play down potential risks. For instance, e-liquid manufacturer Canada Vapes shared a post in October that says “vaping is less harmful than smoking,” citing the federal government. But federal law explicitly prohibits any health claims in vaping promotions. Canada Vapes did not respond to an interview request.

An Instagram post from Canada Vapes makes health claims about vaping.

“What we’re seeing are classic, tobacco-type promotions that make the product cool and attractive to youth,” said Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society.

Decades ago, tobacco companies heavily advertised their products, using bright colours, cartoon mascots and photos of attractive young people in their promotions. For years, the industry said the ads were designed to target existing smokers and encourage them to switch brands. But in 1998, secret documents from seven major tobacco companies were made public as the result of a legal battle. The documents described how companies knowingly targeted young people as “replacements” for older smokers who would eventually die from tobacco-related causes. For instance, a 1978 memo from the Lorillard Tobacco Company simply read “the base of our business is the high school student.”

As evidence emerged in the early 1960s linking cigarettes to lung cancer, emphysema and other serious health problems, governments across Canada started adopting a series of increasingly tough restrictions on tobacco marketing and accessibility.

In the 56 years since Canada’s federal health minister first publicly stated that smoking causes lung cancer, the country has become a world leader in tobacco control. Canada was the first country to mandate graphic health warnings on cigarette packages and ban all flavours except menthol in cigarettes and little cigars. Today, laws prohibit the display of tobacco products in retail stores. And this month, new rules that require plain packaging for all tobacco packages take effect.

Meanwhile, e-cigarette companies use language borrowed from the cigarette industry’s decades-old playbook. This past August, Imperial Tobacco Canada posted an ad on its Facebook and Instagram pages for its Vype e-cigarette brand with the text “Quiet. Smooth. Satisfying.” Around the same time, JTI Canada posted a social media ad for its Logic e-cigarette brand that said “Our Intense French Berry flavor will have you coming back for more!” In an interview, Mr. Gagnon said “satisfying” can help existing smokers understand that vape products can help with nicotine cravings. Caroline Evans, head of corporate affairs for JTI Canada, said the company targets adult smokers and is committed to reducing youth uptake.

An Instagram post promotes French Berry flavoured Logic e-cigarettes.

Mr. Cunningham said examples of these types of promotions highlight the need for an outright flavour and advertising ban.

“It demonstrates how inadequate the current provisions are,” he said. “These companies are engaging in doublespeak and they cannot be trusted with promotion when they’re engaging with obvious illegal promotions that involve people and lifestyle messages.”

Mr. Pisano of the Canadian Vaping Association said he believes most member companies are in compliance with federal law. Mr. Pisano added that while companies aren’t allowed to call flavoured vaping products by any name that would be appealing to children, such as bubble gum, his understanding of the law is that companies can still use those flavours and give them innocuous names, such as “sunset.”

Mr. Pisano said, according to his interpretation, federal rules only prohibit companies from promoting child-friendly flavours on product labels and that companies can freely use any language to describe product flavours online, for instance.

or Nicolas Dupont, marketing messages and the availability of sweet, fruity flavours led him to try e-cigarettes while he was in high school. Now, the 18-year-old CEGEP student in Gatineau still vapes regularly, as do the majority of his friends. “People that have never thought of smoking suddenly just vape like it’s normal and like it’s cool and I find it kind of sad,” he said.

He said it’s a common occurrence to be out with a group of friends and for everyone to have a vaping device. Unlike smoking, which forces most people outside in the cold and leaves a lingering smell on clothes and hands, teens can vape anywhere, virtually undetected. “I know a lot of my friends just sit in bed and vape and vape and vape. Their parents won’t necessarily find out unless they walk in the second they do it,” Mr. Dupont said.

As reports of vaping-related deaths and illnesses started to emerge in recent months, Mr. Dupont started to re-evaluate e-cigarettes and is trying to cut down. But, as with many of his friends, he’s been unable to quit.

“The first thing you notice is that the addiction was more clear and more pronounced as soon as we started. We could just be sitting anywhere and vaping,” Mr. Dupont said.

Kevin Kaardal, superintendent of B.C.’s Central Okanagan School District, understood how serious youth vaping had become earlier this year, when schools had to call ambulances for students experiencing nicotine overdoses on three separate occasions. Symptoms of nicotine poisoning include vomiting, nausea, rapid breathing and an increase in blood pressure.

In October, Mr. Kaardal sent a letter to parents, warning them any e-cigarette products found on school property would be confiscated and suggesting they speak to their children about the dangers of vaping. The district has seen plenty of middle school students using e-cigarettes. “In rare cases, even students as young as … Grade 5,” said Mr. Kaardal, who points to flavours and increasingly small, sleek devices that resemble flash drives as lures for young people.

“I struggle to understand how [the industry] can say they’re only trying to target adults when they have candy flavoured vape or e-juice,” he said. “They’re making [e-cigarettes] in shapes that would fool somebody. It’s very hard to detect.”

Every day for the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands of commuters passed by a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling advertising campaign for Vype e-cigarettes in Toronto’s Union Station. Unlike its social media feed, the ads don’t boast about the availability of fruit flavours or the device’s ability to satisfy. The campaign focuses on the quality and safety of Vype e-cigarettes, a response to growing public concerns over the reports of illnesses and deaths linked to e-cigarettes in North America. The ads state Vype doesn’t contain THC or vitamin E acetate, which have been implicated in the U.S. outbreak of vaping-related lung disease.

The campaign is part of a wider industry-led effort to counteract the growing health concerns of vaping in the eyes of the public, as well as federal and provincial regulators that have the power to crack down on the industry.

In September, several e-cigarette companies, including Juul, Imperial Tobacco Canada, which sells the Vype e-cigarette, and JTI Canada, which sells the Logic vape brand, joined forces to launch the Vaping Industry Trade Association (VITA). Each of the six founding members have pledged to contribute $100,000 every year for three years to help promote the industry.

The Canadian Vaping Association (CVA), launched a GoFundMe appeal on Sept. 27 for a public relations campaign in response to growing concerns that flavoured vaping products are leading to rising youth vaping rates.

“Flavours are not to blame,” the fundraising page says. The campaign has raised more than $225,000 so far.

VITA and the CVA both want to improve the public’s perception of vaping, but they each have different goals. While the CVA is focused on preventing a crackdown on flavours, VITA is lobbying the federal government for the right to promote the health benefits of e-cigarettes compared to tobacco. The group says it is essential companies be able to communicate their message to adult smokers.

“The way the regs are, we can’t talk about harm-reduction value,” said Daniel David, president of the organization. “It’s perceived we are using it to help sell the product or whatever, but it’s factual information. It does need to be out there.”

In fact, Health Canada is considering allowing vaping companies to promote the health claims on product labels. Last fall, department representatives conducted a closed consultation with industry members and other stakeholders over the proposal to let e-cigarettes carry labels stating they are a less harmful alternative to cigarettes. The proposed promotional statements include “Switching completely from smoking to e-cigarettes will reduce harms to your health,” and “If you are a smoker, switching completely to vaping is a much less harmful option.”

Public health experts say such a move would be a serious mistake that could exacerbate the unfolding vaping crisis.

“The problem with advertising is that it reaches youth and it reaches ex-smokers and non-smokers,” Mr. Cunningham said. “They simply shouldn’t be advertising.”

Federal and provincial governments each have the power to bring in new e-cigarette rules. As provincial regulators wait for Health Canada’s next move, some are responding to mounting concerns by introducing new restrictions.

On Thursday, B.C. announced it is increasing the tax on vaping products, will ban flavours that could appeal to children, cap nicotine levels and restrict public advertising for vape products. Last month, Ontario said it will ban vaping ads in gas stations and convenience stores as of Jan. 1, 2020, while Nova Scotia’s government said it will consider a ban on e-cigarette flavours. Some provinces, including Quebec and Manitoba, have already banned most forms of e-cigarette advertising. Quebec also bans online sales of e-cigarettes to minors and is seen by many tobacco control advocates as having the strongest e-cigarette legislation in Canada. Health experts say the patchwork of provincial rules highlights why strong federal regulations are needed.

In February, Health Canada signalled it will move to further restrict many forms of e-cigarette advertising, including promotions in public places where young people could be exposed to them, such as shopping malls, public transit and parks, broadcast media during, before or after children’s programs and child-oriented websites. In April, Health Canada held a public consultation on other possible restrictions, such as prohibiting certain flavours and capping nicotine levels.

It’s unclear whether any proposed restrictions would apply to social media platforms not specifically oriented to children, including Facebook and Instagram. It’s also unclear when or if any of these rules would take effect.

At the University of Waterloo, Dr. Hammond is preparing to release a new set of data that he says shows the youth vaping problem is only getting worse. But provinces that have adopted tough marketing restrictions, such as Quebec, are seeing a slower increase in youth vaping rates, Dr. Hammond said.

“I don’t think we have the time to waste and wait,” said Sandy Buchman, president of the Canadian Medical Association. “Youth vaping is a public health crisis and we need the action now.”

The Globe and Mail