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E-cig companies use cartoon characters as logos, and new study shows it works

Electronic cigarette use, or vaping, is unsafe for children, adolescents and young adults. Electronic cigarettes often contain nicotine and other harmful substances. Nicotine is addictive and can curb adolescent brain development, which continues into young adulthood. The leading electronic cigarette company insists it is not targeting youth as customers.

I study ways to inform public health and policy by using data from social media. As part of my research, I monitor the marketing material from tobacco companies, including electronic cigarette companies’ posts to Instagram, Twitter and YouTube—all platforms frequently used by young people.

Last year, my colleagues and I reported that electronic cigarette companies are using cartoons as a marketing strategy, and that many companies’ logos are cartoons. This suggests that cartoons are important to their brand identity.

Cartoon marketing for e-cigs is unregulated

Restrictions on cartoon marketing for combustible cigarettes and chewing tobacco have been in place since 1999. However, no such restrictions apply to electronic cigarettes.

In our follow-up study, recently published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, we examined the relationship between exposure to electronic cigarette marketing with cartoons and susceptibility to use such products in the future among young adults 18 to 25 years of age.

We recruited participants through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk), a web-based platform often used for experimental and survey research that has been shown to provide reliable data.

Participants (802 young adults) reported whether they had used electronic cigarettes in their lifetime, in the past six months and in the past 30 days. Those who had not used electronic cigarettes in their lifetime were categorized as “never users” (286 young adults) and were the focus of the study.

We wanted to determine if participants’ susceptibility to use electronic cigarettes in the future increased as a result of their exposure to cartoon-based marketing from electronic cigarette companies. Susceptibility was measured by responses to a series of questions such as, “Do you think that you will try vaping soon?”

Participants were presented with 22 images of electronic cigarette products. Eleven of the product images contained cartoons on the packaging, and 11 contained a noncartoon image. For each image, participants were asked to endorse whether or not they had seen the product before.

Thirty-eight percent of participants in our study recognized at least one cartoon-based marketing image. We found that among never-users, individuals who reported cartoon recognition were four times more likely to be susceptible to using electronic cigarettes in the future compared to those not susceptible.

We did not find a relationship between recognition of noncartoon images and susceptibility to use electronic cigarettes in the future. In other words, among never-users, recognition of actual cartoon-based marketing images—but not recognition of noncartoon-based marketing images—was associated with a greater likelihood of participants reporting susceptibility to use electronic cigarettes.

We controlled for other factors, including demographic characteristics, exposure to other types of marketing, that may be associated with susceptibility to use electronic cigarettes, allowing us to confidently claim that cartoon recognition is associated with susceptibility.

Our findings are consistent with prior research that examined the impact of cartoon-based marketing on the purchase and use of a range of products from combustible cigarettes to sugary foods.

The power of a welcoming character

Our study could not explain why cartoon recognition would be associated with susceptibility to use electronic cigarette use in the future, but earlier research suggests several possible reasons. For one, cartoons may be a simple communication of ideas (fun, exciting, welcoming) that can increase attention to product packaging. This ultimately leads to increased product recognition and may alter attitudes.

Also, MTurk’s recruitment is restricted to adults and may not be representative of the general population in the U.S. In the future, we plan to expand this research among samples across age groups including teenagers. Our study design was correlational and could not determine causality, meaning we found a correlation between seeing cartoon-based marketing and participants’ susceptibility to using electronic cigarettes, but we can’t say the marketing caused that susceptibility.

The Food and Drug Administration is developing ways to best regulate electronic cigarettes. Many experts in the public health community are actively trying to determine if electronic cigarettes help adult smokers quit combustible cigarettes or serve as a gateway product to smoking among youth.

While research on the public health impact of electronic cigarettes will continue for some time, it is clear that nicotine use of any kind is known to be addictive and harmful to young people’s brain development.

We believe that our findings could motivate policies aimed at reducing cartoon-based electronic cigarette marketing similar to those for combustible cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

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Candy King E-Liquid Recalled for Incorrect Nicotine Level

Drip More has recalled four lots of “Candy King — Worms” e-liquid that the company says contains a higher concentration of nicotine than what is stated on the label. Drip More says the misbranded e-liquid was produced by a contract manufacturer.

The nicotine strength listed on the label is 3 mg/mL. Drip More has not said what concentration is actually in the bottles, but says, “The higher concentration of nicotine has the potential to cause immediate and potentially serious adverse health effects.” The company says is has received no reports of “illness or injury,” but that “some consumers have complained that the product tastes bad, bitter, and/or harsh.”

Without knowing what nicotine strength is in the recalled bottles, it is hard to predict whether the product presents a true health danger. Doubling 3mg/mL liquid to 6, for example, would be unlikely to create a hazard. But if the liquid was three or four times stronger than indicated, an unsuspecting sub-ohm vaper might receive an uncomfortably intense dose of nicotine. If unexpected, such a powerful hit could cause temporary dizziness or other effects.

Drip More says it will notify purchasers by email and letter, and will replace any of the recalled bottles that are returned.

The recall was announced by Drip More, and also posted on the FDA’s website. The FDA regularly posts recall information for products regulated by the agency, including tobacco, food and drugs.

The recalled products are:

Candy King – Worms 3mg/100ml – Lot Number: WO03021819-1
Candy King – Worms 3mg/100ml – Lot Number: WO03021819-2
Candy King – Worms 3mg/100ml – Lot Number: WO03021819-3
Candy King – Worms 3mg/100ml – Lot Number: WO03021819-4

All four lots have the UPC 653341196767. Photos of the packages and locations of the identifying information are available on the Drip More website.

According to Drip More, more than 7,000 bottles of the misbranded e-liquid was shipped to distributors, wholesalers, retailers and consumers in the following states:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • North Carolina
  • New Jersey
  • Nevada
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming

Drip More says it will notify purchasers by email and letter, and will replace any of the recalled bottles that are returned. Retailers will offer refunds to individuals who bought the e-liquid.

Drip More has been a target of both vaping industry advocates and the FDA before. The company’s Candy King products have frequently been cited as examples of irresponsible marketing. Last May, California-based Drip More received an FDA warning letter for the packaging of two of its e-liquid brands, Candy King Batch and Candy King Sour Worms.

The letter was part of a brief FDA “crackdown” on e-liquid labels that the agency said were a threat to children who might mistake the nicotine-containing liquids for actual food products. Drip More changed its packaging after being cited by the agency.