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A Fight Over Vaping “Bots” Is Blazing While E-Cigarette Bans Loom

“Dehumanizing opposition by calling people ‘bots’ is just a way to attack vaping,” said one vaping advocate.

Posted on October 29, 2019, at 5:03 p.m. ET

Joshua A. Bickel / AP

WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump and Congress weigh e-cigarette bans amid an outbreak of deadly lung injuries, a fight has erupted over whether vaping supporters online are real people — or bots funded by an industry under attack.

The fight was sparked by a controversial report released two weeks ago by the Public Good Projects, a public health nonprofit. Its analysis — which looked at 1,288,378 tweets related to e-cigarettes or tobacco sent between Feb. 1 and June 1 — concluded that nearly 80% were likely generated by bots, or automated accounts, “posing as passionate pro-vaping individuals.” The findings have been called into question by experts skeptical about its methodology.

The bots report sparked panic among public health officials who are suspicious that the vaping industry, backed by Big Tobacco, is using shady marketing tactics to sway public opinion with misinformation about the dangers of nicotine. But it has also triggered furious backlash online from e-cigarette users concerned about losing access to potentially life-saving vapes. This group has flooded the #NotABot hashtag with conspiracy theories and political threats aimed at the Trump administration, which is grappling with a proposed ban on flavored e-cigs.

Paranoia about the lessons learned from the 30-year-old battle with Big Tobacco loom large on both sides as public health officials worry that vaping companies are borrowing from its playbook, and vaping users fear being driven back to smoking cigarettes.

The findings made headlines when they were first reported by the Wall Street Journal, which linked the report to a congressional committee holding a hearing that week investigating the four major sellers of e-cigarettes, Juul Labs, Fontem Ventures, Japan Tobacco International USA, and Reynolds American. The hearing was actually a look at legislation aimed at curbing youth vaping, rather than corporate behavior. But in August, the committee requested a “list of all social media influencers the companies have paid to market their products and any handles and usernames for social media bots that the companies use to market their products.”

Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, linked the inquiry to a nationwide outbreak of severe lung injuries under investigation by the CDC — now standing at 1,604 cases and 34 deaths — to the vaping of THC oil from the black market. Congress was already alarmed by reports of a sharp increase in e-cigarette use among teens. Twenty-one percent of high school seniors had reported vaping in the last 30 days. States such as Massachusetts and Michigan have instituted full or partial vaping bans as a result.

The reliability of the bots report was soon called into question. On Oct. 15, Amelia Howard, a University of Waterloo graduate student and vaping advocate, tweeted that a draft version of the report shown to her by a reporter had listed five illustrative “bot” accounts in a middle section. In at least four cases, those so-called bots were actually people she knew or had met.

Amelia Howard@Amelia_RH

Over a week ago the Wall Street Journal asked me to comment on the report that occasioned this story. Sadly none of my comments made the cut. But that’s ok, I’m happy to repeat what I told WSJ (and more!) on twitter in this thread you’re gonna want to readhttps://www.wsj.com/articles/congress-probes-bot-generated-social-media-messages-about-e-cigarettes-11571045405 

Congress Probes Bot-Generated Social-Media Messages About E-Cigarettes

Congress Probes Bot-Generated Social-Media Messages About E-Cigarettes

A congressional committee and the Massachusetts attorney general are investigating whether millions of bot-generated social-media messages about e-cigarettes have misled consumers about safety.

wsj.com

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That six-page section was cut from the final report when it was released to the public, a move that Howard suggested was to hide its flawed findings. She called it part of a larger “moral panic” aimed against e-cigarettes by public health officials and scientists. “Tobacco control is a very political field and is morally motivated,” Howard told BuzzFeed News.

In defense of the report, Joe Smyser of the Public Good Projects told BuzzFeed News, “What we were really looking for is automation” by Twitter accounts, which might encompass people setting their accounts to automatically retweet certain hashtags. So while real people might own the Twitter accounts, their use of automated tools might leave them flagged as a “bot,” what Smyser called a “cyborg.”

“There is a great deal of messaging that e-cigarettes are safe, nicotine can’t poison people, and that public health authorities are lying,” Smyser said.

Public Good Projects

Automated accounts responding to the news of Trump’s proposed “ban.”

The write-up of five accounts was removed when the group learned the accounts could still be identified despite attempts to redact their names, Smyser said. The point of the report was to show how automation helps sell e-cigarettes and how the practice outweighs public health messages that urge people not to vape — not to attack specific accounts.

“The recent talks about banning e-cigarettes and the vaping illnesses have provided automated accounts with fuel,” Smyser told BuzzFeed News. “This is just the new normal now, and the public health community is behind the eight ball on catching up.”

Other experts say that the numbers in the report sound reasonable based on prior research, but called into question the study’s poorly described methodology for detecting automation.

In a 2017 study cited by the report, Jon-Patrick Allem, an assistant professor of research preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, analyzed more than 6 million tweets related to e-cigarettes with computer code posted online to allow other people to check the approach, relying on about 1,000 characteristics of bot accounts to ferret them out. That study found about 70% of tweets about e-cigarettes came from social bots.

The Public Good Projects report’s results rested on about 100 signs of automation, according to Smyser, such as automatic retweets in response to hashtags and never tweeting original content, to rate 80% of accounts it saw as bots. Those numbers don’t sound unreasonable in 2019, said Allem, especially as scrutiny around vaping has skyrocketed amid the lung injury outbreak. But without detailed methodology describing how the researchers found this phenomenon getting stronger, the results can’t be taken at face value. That “isn’t how we do it in scientific studies,” Allem said.

Smyser said his group is planning to submit the report to a scientific journal to more rigorously address such concerns, arguing that the original paper was “meant for general readers, not scientists.”

Public Good Projects@PublicGoodProj

7/8 If you’re looking for info on & , pro info often really is easier to find, because of a united front. Here’s a chart showing the recent increase in hashtags used by pro-vape advocates

View image on Twitter
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Public Good Projects / Twitter

“Bots are really pretty sophisticated now, compared to 10 years ago,” Allem said. The online world is filled with a bewildering grab bag of vaping stores that automatically post sales announcements, advocates who auto-respond to hashtags, and genuine bots that steadily disperse misinformation, he said, intermingled with real people who turn automatic behavior on and off in random fashion.

Bots “are becoming harder to detect,” he added.

This round in the fight over the future of vaping dates at least back to September 2018, when the FDA, in the largest coordinated investigation in the agency’s history, issued more than 1,300 warning letters and fines to stores that illegally sold Juul and other e-cigarettes to minors during a self-described “nationwide, undercover blitz of brick-and-mortar and online stores.”

A month later, the National Youth Tobacco Survey reported a sudden increase of more than 1.5 million high school and middle school students in the US who had used an e-cigarette in the previous month, taking the total up to 3.6 million people and noting a significant increase in flavored vapes.

“These new data show that America faces an epidemic of youth e-cigarette use, which threatens to engulf a new generation in nicotine addiction,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in response. Suspicion of fakery in Juul’s marketing campaign, and among purported vaping supporters, emerged from Allem’s 2017 study and a long-standing, merited distrust of the tobacco industry.

Abaca Press / Sipa USA via AP

From left: Melania Trump, Donald Trump, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar at a September meeting about vaping.

In the 1950s, tobacco companies settled on the “Doubt is our product” advertising strategy to delay regulation. Over the next four decades, the tobacco industry employed front groups, fake scientists, and lobbyists to sow confusion about the links between tobacco and lung cancer, heart disease, and other deadly illnesses. The World Health Organization has called the industry effort, revealed through lawsuits in the 1990s, “a relentless defence of its economic interests,” that put profits ahead of public health.

The descendants of those same companies are now heavily involved in selling e-cigarettes, with industry leader Juul headed by a CEO, K.C. Crosthwaite, installed last month from Altria (formerly Philip Morris Companies), which owns 35% of the vaping firm. Lobbying efforts like Juul’s “Project Switch” — which sought to connect customers with a public relations firm that specializes in “grassroots” political messaging for business clients to push against a New York state ban — have public health officials suspicious that a history of fake front groups is repeating itself.

Ironically, foes of vaping fans have their own suspicions of fakery. There was a blowup in July 2018 over some 500,000 anti-vaping comments submitted to the public comment section of a proposed FDA “Regulation of Flavors in Tobacco Products” that the pro-vaping website RegulatorWatch decried as “spam,” or fake comments meant to overwhelm the 22,000 pro-vaping comments submitted to the docket.

“The FDA is aware that a number of auto-generated comments were submitted to the docket for the advance notice of proposed rulemaking on flavors in tobacco products,” the FDA’s Stephanie Caccomo told BuzzFeed News by email. “However, as noted on regulations.gov‎, the comment process is not a vote — agencies make determinations for a proposed action based on sound reasoning and scientific evidence.”

Charles A. Gardner, PhD@ChaunceyGardner

I am just one of over 10 million adult smokers who have quit by switching to legal FDA-regulated nicotine e-cigarettes. I plan to attend the first-ever US national Vaping Rally in Washington DC on November 9, 2019.

DO YOU?@LegionVaping @thr4life @Vapingit @whycherrywhy

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The brawl over whether the support for vaping comes from real people or astroturfing (fake grassroots efforts invented by companies or politicians), looks familiar, drug policy expert Leo Beletsky of Northeastern University told BuzzFeed News. The two sides — public health officials concerned about vaping teens, and ex-smokers scared to death of vaping bans — are talking past each other with language borrowed from the 30-year fight over cigarettes, he said.

“When the conversation shifts to talking about any addictive substance use by teens and kids, we totally lose our minds,” he added.

Congressional hearings about vaping regularly feature laments from lawmaker parents and grandparents about vaping among their offspring, even as public health officials struggle to explain that millions of adults have shifted from smoking with the help of e-cigarettes.

“Really there is no honest conversation going on here,” he said.

Tobacco, abetted by its addictive nicotine ingredient, kills more than 7 million people a year worldwide. On the public health side, e-cigarette firms are investors, owners, or peddlers of that same nicotine, making it easy to see claims by the vaping industry and its fans as just another industry smoke screen for hooking teenagers. Juul’s high-strength nicotine pods — packed with 59 milligrams of nicotine per milliliter, more than 2.5 times stronger than legal limits on nicotine in the United Kingdom — flaunts a strategy of tapering nicotine levels in tobacco products called for by public health researchers to cut teen smoking since 1994.

“Nicotine levels in e-cigarettes are quite harmful to the developing brain, which doesn’t stop developing until age 25,” Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, told reporters in a news briefing on Friday. In a statement on the outbreak, the agency advises former smokers and anyone else addicted to nicotine using e-cigarettes to “consider utilizing FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapies.”

Against this, a few voices have pointed out that banning legal e-cigarettes could drive users back to cigarettes or to the illicit market for vaping liquid, which has already been linked to the deadly outbreak.

“THC is just a proxy for illicit,” said Beletsky. “It’s the illicit part that matters.”

Perhaps in response, the pro-vaping world of social media has been “very combative,” said Allem, who studied sentiments voiced on Twitter about vaping liquids in a 2018 study. He found that most posts were about sales (29%) and flavors (24%). Health risks from nicotine were rarely mentioned (6%) and “Quit Smoking” was almost nonexistent (less than 1%).

Conspiracy theories have also increased along with the combativeness. One popular theory, #MSABloodMoney, references the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement that limited cigarette advertising and steered tobacco industry revenue to states to pay for tobacco-related diseases in perpetuity. The conspiracy theory — which has also been touted by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, an anti-tax activist hugely influential within the Republican Party — paints parents and doctors worried about teens vaping as being motivated by greed for cigarette tax revenue.

Grover Norquist

@GroverNorquist

The government tax collectors make more money on every pack of cigarettes than the farmers, manufacturers, retailers of cigarettes–combined.
Of course, the tax and spend liberals want to stop people from moving to vaping.
They want your money.
Could care less about your health

138 people are talking about this

Norquist’s involvement shows how the political side of the #NotABot furor adds to its intensity. In September, the Trump administration shocked the vaping industry by saying it was moving to ban flavored vapes nationwide. “A lot of people think it’s wonderful,” Trump said to reporters. “It’s not a wonderful thing.”

That has led to another hashtag, #WeVapeWeVote, sweeping Twitter amid threats that vaping fans turning against Trump in battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, per Axios, could cost him the 2020 election. A “WeVapeWeVote” protest took place before a Trump rally in Dallas, and news reports emerged on Friday that the president’s ban was losing steam in the White House, causing him to retreat from a full flavor ban to one that would spare menthol and mint flavors.

The Vapor Technology Association launched an ad campaign this month on Fox News to influence Trump to halt his ban. Sean Hannity vaped on his show in 2017 during a commercial break, and listeners have complained about vaping ads supporting his radio show.

Underneath the fights over vaping on Twitter, there’s little doubt that Juul and its lookalikes are sold by businesses that aim to maximize their sales, health policy expert Kar-Hai Chu of the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health told BuzzFeed News. Chu’s research, for example, has found that a quarter of all tweets by Juul were retweeted by teenagers, showing who was targeted in its lifestyle ads. Touted by Instagram and YouTube influencers popular with teens and young adults, Juul’s marketing has cast doubt on its self-proclaimed public health benefits.

“Flavors are what get kids interested in e-cigarettes, a lot of evidence shows,” said Chu, explaining the interest in flavor bans by states.

Rather than an outright ban, said Beletsky, the e-cigarette market requires sensible, nationwide regulation aimed at letting people who genuinely benefit from vaping continue while also curbing teens’ access to the products. Outlawing e-cigarettes will just drive people to the black market.

But he’s not optimistic, he added: “It’s very rare in drug policy where we use a scalpel. Usually we use a wrecking ball.”

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Juul names new CFO amid management shake-up, several top executives are out

KEY POINTS
  • Several top executives have left Juul amid a shake-up at the e-cigarette giant.
  • New CEO K.C. Crosthwaite is reviewing the company’s operations.
  • Juul will cut about 500 jobs by the year-end.
AP: Ditch Juul congressional hearing
A person in the audience wears a shirt against JUUL as JUUL Labs co-founder and Chief Product Officer James Monsees, foreground, testifies before a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 25, 2019, during a hearing on the youth nicotine epidemic.
Susan Walsh | AP

Juul CEO K.C. Crosthwaite has replaced the company’s chief financial officer amid a management shake-up at the embattled e-cigarette maker, according to people familiar with the matter.

Several top executives have left the company, including Chief Administrative Officer Ashley Gould and Chief Financial Officer Tim Danaher, two veteran employees at the young start-up. Newcomers Craig Brommers, chief marketing officer, and David Foster, senior vice president of advanced technologies, are also gone.

“We would not be where we are as a company today without the extraordinary efforts of a few individuals who have asked to transition out of the company. I want to make sure to specifically thank each of them,” Crosthwaite, a former Altria executive, said in an email sent to employees Monday.

VIDEO02:44
Juul ramps up lobbying efforts as vaping backlash grows

Juul appointed Guy Cartwright as its new CFO, a Juul spokesman confirmed to CNBC. Cartwright joined the company in July as transformation and operations officer, according to his LinkedIn profile.

“Over the past 3 months, Guy has been instrumental in helping us define our financial priorities and identify opportunities for efficiency,” a company spokesman said in a statement.

Juul has eliminated the chief marketing officer position, according to the spokesman. It was not immediately clear whether Juul would fill Gould’s and Foster’s positions. Co-founders James Monsees and Adam Bowen, who formerly held the positions of chief product officer and chief technology officer, respectively, will join a newly formed founders office, where they will advise Crosthwaite.

The changes were announced in the email sent to employees. They come as Juul prepares to cut about 500 jobs, or about 10% to 15% of its total head count, by the end of the year. Before the cuts, Juul boasted about 4,100 employees.

“As the vapor category undergoes a necessary reset, this reorganization will help JUUL Labs focus on reducing underage use, investing in scientific research, and creating new technologies while earning a license to operate in the U.S. and around the world,” Crosthwaite said in a separate statement addressing the layoffs Monday.

The shake-up comes just a month into Crosthwaite’s tenure. The longtime Altria executive succeeded former Juul CEO Kevin Burns, who steered the company through its deal with Altria. The tobacco giant invested $12.8 billion in Juul in December.

The deal sent Juul’s valuation soaring to $38 billion. It prompted intense criticism from public health advocates who said taking money from the top U.S. cigarette manufacturer undermines Juul’s stated mission to help eliminate smoking.

The situation has quickly worsened for Juul in the nearly year since announcing the deal. At least one hedge fund has reportedly slashed the value of its stake in Juul to a price that values the e-cigarette maker at $24 billion.

VIDEO02:09
Juul to suspend sale of most flavored products

The Trump administration has said it will remove all flavored e-cigarettes from the market amid a surge in teen use. Local and state governments are tightening restrictions and in some cases, banning e-cigarettes outright. Retailers like WalmartWalgreens and Kroger are pulling the products from shelves.

Juul is facing mounting litigation. The company is the subject of numerous investigations, including one from a House panel that Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., is leading. The committee grilled Gould, one of the executives being removed, about Juul’s youth outreach program that sent company representatives into schools.

Crosthwaite is tasked with turning Juul’s fortunes around. Under his leadership, the company has suspended all product advertising in the U.S. and stopped selling Juul’s sweet flavors like mango and fruit. Juul has also said it will not lobby the Trump administration on its looming flavor policy.

Crosthwaite poached former Altria colleague Joe Murillo to lead Juul’s regulatory efforts. Murillo will focus on preparing and filing Juul’s application with the Food and Drug Administration to keep selling its e-cigarettes. All companies will need to submit their products to the FDA for review by May 2020.

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Juul Suspends Advertising, CEO Steps Down

The vaping company Juul Labs will suspend all advertising in the United States, accept a ban on flavored e-cigarette products and make other major changes amid public outcry and health concerns about the use of electronic cigarettes, particularly among teens.

It’s Over For Flavored Vaping Products

Juul released a statement on Wednesday (Sept. 25) saying that it will not fight a federal ban on flavored vaping products and that it will stop advertising its products immediately. In addition, CEO Kevin Burns is stepping down and will be replaced by K.C. Crosthwaite, former chief growth officer at Altria Group Inc.

Altria, which owns Philip Morris USA, is one of the biggest tobacco companies in the nation. Altria has a 35% stake in Juul, which it bought for $12.8 billion last December.

In his first statement as CEO, Crosthwaite said that Juul is at a crossroads.

“I have long believed in a future where adult smokers overwhelmingly choose alternative products like JUUL. That has been this company’s mission since it was founded, and it has taken great strides in that direction,” he said. “Unfortunately, today that future is at risk due to unacceptable levels of youth usage and eroding public confidence in our industry. Against that backdrop, we must strive to work with regulators, policymakers and other stakeholders, and earn the trust of the societies in which we operate. That includes inviting an open dialogue, listening to others and being responsive to their concerns.”

No More Ads

Effective immediately, the company will be “suspending all broadcast, print and digital product advertising in the U.S.” and “Refraining from lobbying the Administration on its draft guidance and committing to fully support and comply with the final policy when effective,” according to the company’s statement.

In the statement, the company said that it has already taken steps to combat underage use of its products:

“JUUL Labs has strongly advocated for Tobacco 21 (T21) laws, stopped the sale of non-tobacco and non-menthol-based flavored JUULpods to all of its traditional retail store partners, enhanced its online age verification, discontinued its U.S.-based Facebook and Instagram accounts and works to remove inappropriate social media content generated by others on those platforms. The company also intensified efforts to combat illegal and potentially dangerous counterfeit and compatible products. Most recently, JUUL Labs started deploying technology at retail stores that automatically restricts the sale of JUUL products until a government-issued ID is electronically scanned to verify age and ID validity, exceeding the standards in place for other tobacco products and alcohol.”

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Marijuana: US To Spend $3 Million Researching Chemicals in Marijuana

marijuana pain research

The United States government plans to spend $3 million studying whether marijuana has pain-relieving effects.

However, it will only be studying the parts of the plant that do not get users high.

Study Will Focus on Chronic Pain Relief

According to NBC News, the money is coming from nine research grants that were announced on Thursday (Sept. 19). The grants will allow researchers to delve deeper into the pain-treating properties of CBD and other lesser-known chemicals in marijuana. The chemical THC, which is what users get high from, is not included in the research plans.

When it comes to pain management using the chemicals from marijuana, “The science is strongest for chronic pain, the most common reason people give when they enroll in state-approved medical marijuana programs,” NBC notes.

Dr. David Shurtleff is the deputy director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, which is funding the projects. He says THC has been studied “extensively” already and that the dangers of the chemical don’t make it a good option for treating pain. He adds that the hope is to catch up to the current use of other chemicals in marijuana.

“The science is lagging behind the public use and interest. We’re doing our best to catch up here,” he said.

According to Shurtleff, the grants come as a response to the 2017 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report which stated that there was a lack of research surrounding marijuana, making it a “public health risk.”

Responding To The Opioid Crisis

Another motivator for the research on the pain-easing properties of marijuana is the opioid epidemic, which is rooted in the use of prescription painkillers.

Dr. Judith Hellman, a grant recipient from University of California San Francisco, is researching the ability of the body to create signaling molecules that are similar to the ingredients in marijuana.

Hellman says it’s vital for scientists to more deeply explore pain and its treatment. “It’s very exciting to have the opportunity to do that,” she said.

According to NBC, only one of the grant projects involves human test subjects. University of Utah researcher Deborah Yurgelun-Todd plans to run brain scans of volunteers suffering from lower back pain. Her plan is to determine how CBD mixed with chocolate pudding can affect the pain-signaling pathways in the brain.

Many of the new projects will use lab-made versions of the chemicals, instead of extracting them from the plant itself, according to NBC.

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Machine Gun Kelly Wants To Be Happy Without Drugs, Alcohol

machine gun kelly

Machine Gun Kelly is on to the next chapter. The Cleveland rapper announced on Twitter that he’s “determined” to be happy, substance-free.

“I want to become happy without the help of pills, drink, or drugs one day,” he wrote. “I want to wake up and know what mood I’m going to be in.”

The rapper and actor, born Colson Baker, said he was inspired by the love he received during his Hotel Diablo tour, which ended with a final performance in Moscow, Russia on Sunday (Sept. 22). MGK will continue to perform in the States up until November 18, according to his official website.

“Fans gave me so much love this tour it made me want to become a happier person. I’m determined to do it. Thank you, I love you,” he wrote.

He also tweeted on the same day, “Just finished the last show of the best tour of my life. I’m just sad it’s over… I’ve felt broken inside for a while, this helped fix me.”

Heroin Addiction

Machine gun kelly’s history of drug and alcohol use is no secret. His music has chronicled his battles with heroin and suicidal thoughts. The vulnerability of his work cemented his fan base, who connected with the rapper through his music.

Weed is often referenced in his interviews, but the rapper, a father to a young daughter, has calmed down considerably from using harder drugs.

This past July, the 29-year-old recalled in a GQ interview how he would snort painkillers, which he said he would “never recommend” to anyone.

When asked which drug he would never do again, he replied, “Opana. It’s like heroin. We snorted it. It was so dark. I’d never recommend it to anybody,” he said. “One: it’s absolutely addictive. Two: to be addicted and to want that feeling over and over again… I’m not a person who goes down and then has a rush of positivity to bring themselves back up. I’m the type of person who likes to listen to sad music when I’m sad. I love to wallow and just sink and sink, so that’s why I’ll never touch that one again.”

Fans Show Support

His fans on Twitter responded to his recent post with overwhelming positivity. “Somehow I have been able to do this and I was one of the worst alcoholics I’ve ever seen in my life. You [definitely] can do this my dude. Surround yourself with positive people willing to accomplish the same goal,” one follower replied.

“You got that strength within you. You’ve survived nearly dying numerous times, you have that power to be happily sober and you have a huge crowd of people to help support you with that,” wrote another.

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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.