A study has examined how likely teens are to try e-cigarettes if they are advertised as being produced in chocolate or candy flavours. The study was carried out by the University of Cambridge and was funded by the Department of Health Policy Research Programme.
Five hundred school children, aged between 11 and 16 were exposed to different images of e-cigarette ads to enable researchers to discover if they would be tempted to try e-cigarettes based on flavour. The researchers suspected that flavours such as milk chocolate could make the products more alluring to children.
This was a randomised controlled trial, the results of which have been published on an open access basis. The children were randomly placed into one of three groups and provided with booklets that contained either advertising for sweet-flavoured e-cigarettes, or adverts for non-flavoured e-cigarettes or no advertising at all. The researchers wanted to know if tobacco smoking had any appeal for the children and asked them to rate how they felt about the habit. The children were also asked about their perceived harms of smoking, a question designed to test how susceptible they might be to smoking, their awareness of e-cigarettes prior to the study and the appeal of the e-cigarette adverts. Another question asked whether the children had ever smoked or used e-cigarettes before.
The researchers found that they needed to discard the children who had experience of smoking because their responses were different to those who had not. This left 471 children in the study. The children in the study mostly rated the appeal of tobacco as low as was the appeal of e-cigarettes. There was no significant susceptibility to tobacco smoking across the three groups and the children rated the perceived harm of tobacco smoking as high. However there was a definite difference when the children viewed the adverts for flavoured as opposed to non-flavoured e-cigarettes. The group who viewed the adverts for flavoured e-cigarettes decided that they were more appealing and suggested that they might be more interested in buying them as opposed to the group exposed to normal e-cigarette adverts. The researchers concluded that although the children were not more likely to buy and try e-cigarettes because of exposure to advertising, the adverts for the flavoured cigarettes did offer more appeal which could affect the group that had been discarded for having already tried smoking. They suggested that more research was needed to discover the impact of the ads for e-cigs.
This study did have some limitations. Although a good number of children took part, they were from only two schools, so there is no guarantee that the results would be repeated elsewhere. Although their groups were randomised, the removal of the group of children who had tried cigarettes because they were changing the results may have reduced the randomness of the sample. There was no follow-up to discover whether or not those children who indicated that they might be more likely to go and try e-cigarettes actually did so. Also when studying children, there is always the possibility that they are giving the adults the answers that they think they want to hear rather than the correct one.
This study has highlighted the need for further study on the influence that e-cigarette advertising could have on young people. Current advertising recommendations state that any advert should not feature characters that could appeal to under 18s and there have been some calls that all e-cigarette advertising be banned in the UK.
Vasiljevic M, Petrescu DC, Marteau TM. Impact of advertisements promoting candy-like flavoured e-cigarettes on appeal of tobacco smoking among children: an experimental study. Tobacco Control. Published online January 17 2016
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