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‘Urgent need’ for age restrictions on TikTok vaping videos, Australian study finds

Australian researchers who have studied the portrayal of vaping on TikTok say there is an “urgent need” for age restrictions to reduce teens’ exposure to videos that portray it in a positive light.

University of Queensland researchers have analysed e-cigarette content posted by TikTok users globally and are calling for tighter regulations to prevent nicotine products being promoted to underage users of the video-sharing platform.

The study, published in the journal Tobacco Control, evaluated the content of 808 popular vaping videos that had been collectively viewed more than 1.5bn times as of November 2020. The videos had a median count of 1m views each.

The videos that portrayed e-cigarette use positively comprised 63% of the total and were viewed more than 1.1bn times, while neutral depictions accounted for 24%. The researchers estimated that a quarter of the people in the videos appeared to be younger than 18, while 71% were male.

“The use of comedy, lifestyle references, nicotine addiction references, vaping tricks and ‘how to’ tutorials may create social norms around vaping and increase its social acceptance,” the researchers concluded.

“Considering vaping-related videos are widely accessible on TikTok, there is an urgent need to consider age restrictions to reduce youth uptake.”

They suggested that vaping videos on TikTok might reach a wider audience than on other video-sharing platforms as a result of its recommendation algorithm.

Tianze Sun, a PhD student at UQ and the study’s first author, said the researchers were interested in looking at how e-cigarette use was portrayed on TikTok, given the app’s popularity among young people.

“Because it’s a relatively new platform, they also can potentially lack in regulations when it comes to effective age restrictions,” she said.

“Considering the accessibility of these videos to young people, we hope our study can impact future regulatory frameworks for all social media platforms around mandating age verification measures, particularly … on videos that are portraying vaping positively,” she said.

Vaping among young people has increased significantly in recent years. The triennial National Drug Strategy Household Survey, whose last figures were released in July 2020, found the proportion of tobacco non-smokers aged 18 to 24 using e-cigarettes had quadrupled in Australia in six years.

Sun said previous studies showed the increase in e-cigarette popularity among young people was partly attributable to endorsements by friends, celebrities and online influencers. Other research has found that, when shown to children, e-cigarette advertisements reduced the perceived harm of occasional smoking.

The sale of nicotine vapes is outlawed in Australia, and from 1 October it will no longer be legal to buy nicotine e-cigarette products from overseas websites without a doctor’s prescription.

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TikTok’s community guidelines state it does not allow “the depiction, promotion, or trade of drugs or other controlled substances” and asks users not to post or share “content that offers the purchase, sale, trade, or solicitation of drugs or other controlled substances, alcohol or tobacco products (including vaping products)”.

Dr Michelle Jongenelis, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne, who was not involved in the study, said it was difficult to regulate e-cigarette content on social media, particularly when young people were doing the marketing to their peers.

“A lot of the stuff that is appearing on these platforms are influencers who are being paid by the vaping industry to promote the product, or they are the vaping industry themselves promoting the product,” she said.

“It’s their peers telling them to use these things. What they don’t know is that [some of] their peers are being paid by the vaping industry to promote these devices.”

Jongenelis said the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Act needed to be “updated to take into account modern methods of disseminating [e-cigarette advertising] like social media platforms and websites”.

TikTok Australia has been contacted for comment.

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