The shifting rationales for vaping

March 1, 2017
Twitter users' stated rationales for using e-cigarettes, categorized. Credit: John W. Ayers

A new study harnesses social media data to explore—in their own words—the reasons people use e-cigarettes and why they started vaping in the first place. Nearly half of people say they began vaping in an effort to quit smoking cigarettes, while other reasons included their taste, the ability to use them indoors and their "cool factor."

The work, led by San Diego State University researcher and expert John W. Ayers and published today in the journal PLOS ONE, gets around the inherent limitations and inaccuracies of survey responses by sourcing data directly from people's own comments on social media.

"Just look to surveys from the recent presidential election or Brexit as examples of surveys' weakening ability to gauge public sentiment, attitudes or behaviors," Ayers said. "But what if we could listen in to what people are naturally saying about e-cigarettes to their friends rather than a surveyor?"

To do just that, Ayers and colleagues mined Twitter data from more than 3 million public tweets about e-cigarettes between 2012 and 2015 to understand vaping's surge in popularity over that time.

All English-language public tweets that included several e-cigarette terms (such as "e-cigarette" and "vape," among dozens of others) were captured from the Twitter data stream over that time period. After excluding spam, advertisements, and retweets, posts from real Twitter users indicating their rationale for vaping were retained and classified.

During 2012, quitting "combustibles"—cigarettes and other smoking tobacco products—was the most commonly cited reason for using e-cigarettes, mentioned in nearly half (43 percent) of all rationale-related tweets. Coming in second place was social image (21 percent), followed by ability to use indoors (14 percent), available flavors (14 percent), perceived safety (9 percent), cost (3 percent) and agreeable odor (2 percent).

This graph shows the change over time in people's reported reason for vaping. Credit: John W. Ayers

By 2015, though, the Tweeted reasons for using e-cigarettes had shifted. Both "quitting combustibles" and "ability to use indoors" significantly decreased in mentions.

At the same time, social image became the most mentioned rationale in 2015, cited in 37 percent of the collected tweets. "The reasons people vape shifted away from cessation and toward social image during the time that e-cigarettes evolved from a cessation device to a freestanding tobacco product attracting smokers and nonsmokers alike," said Jon-Patrick Allem, one of the study's coauthor and fellow at the University of Southern California's Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science. "By utilizing Twitter, we can make public health more data-driven and understand vapers or those thinking of vaping," he added.

Misinformation appears to drive some vapers' rationales for using e-cigarettes, the authors noted.

"Some of the reasons people vape appear to be dubious," said Eric Leas, another coauthor and a graduate student in the SDSU-UCSD Public Health Joint Doctoral Program. "For example, vaping may be no less expensive than smoking combustibles, despite their naming that as a reason for vaping. Understanding how the public is potentially misinformed, rather than guessing, is a tremendous benefit for public health surveillance and practice."

Monitoring social media data is a strategy that should be a standard practice in public health, the researchers argue.

"Given the current prevalence of vaping, it would require more than 50,000 screening interviews and cost millions of dollars to have a single snapshot comparable to our study," said Mark Dredze, study coauthor and computer scientist at Johns Hopkins University.

Ayers added that by thinking of Twitter and other social media streams as "a massive, passive focus group" allows for public health researchers to be better connected to the people they serve. "Without any priming or direct costs associated with data collection, public health can use surveillance to understand why people vape, yielding actionable intelligence for decision making on how to discourage vaping," he said. "Given that reasons for vaping can and do change, as we saw in our study, staying on top of these changes can potentially improve advocacy."

Explore further: Teens who vape at increased risk for future cigarette smoking

Related Stories

Teens who vape at increased risk for future cigarette smoking

February 7, 2017
Among high school seniors who have never smoked a cigarette, those who vape are more than four times more likely to smoke a cigarette in the following year than their peers who do not vape.

New research seeks to discover how vaping can help smokers quit

October 18, 2016
The rapid emergence of vaping (e-cigarette use) has led a University of Queensland researcher to seek Australian participants for a large-scale international study.

More frequent vaping among teens linked to higher risk of heavy cigarette smoking

November 8, 2016
In a study appearing in the November 8 issue of JAMA, Adam M. Leventhal, Ph.D., of the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles, and colleagues examined associations of e-cigarette vaping with ...

Research discredits theory that e-cigarettes make tobacco use socially acceptable

December 20, 2016
A study conducted by the Glasgow-based Centre for Substance Use Research (CSUR) has cast doubt on the link suggested by some between the increased visibility of e-cigarette use and the renormalisation of smoking.

E-cigarettes: Gateway or roadblock to cigarette smoking?

June 17, 2016
A new study from the UK Centre for Substance Use Research, being presented today at the Global Forum on Nicotine, shows e-cigarettes are playing an important role in reducing the likelihood of young people smoking, in many ...

Internet searches reflect vaping's surge

February 11, 2016
The Oxford Dictionaries selected "vape"—as in, to smoke from an electronic cigarette—as word of the year in 2014. It turns out that Internet users' search behavior tells a similar story.

Recommended for you

Higher levels of fluoride in pregnant woman linked to lower intelligence in their children

September 20, 2017
Fluoride in the urine of pregnant women shows a correlation with lower measures of intelligence in their children, according to University of Toronto researchers who conducted the first study of its kind and size to examine ...

India has avoided 1 million child deaths since 2005, new study concludes

September 19, 2017
India has avoided about 1 million deaths of children under age five since 2005, driven by significant reductions in mortality from pneumonia, diarrhea, tetanus and measles, according to new research published today.

Gulf spill oil dispersants associated with health symptoms in cleanup workers

September 19, 2017
Workers who were likely exposed to dispersants while cleaning up the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill experienced a range of health symptoms including cough and wheeze, and skin and eye irritation, according to scientists ...

Study suggests link between youth football and later-life emotional, behavioral impairment

September 19, 2017
A new study has found an association between participation in youth tackle football before age 12 and impaired mood and behavior later in life. The study appears in Nature's Translational Psychiatry.

Self-confidence affected by teammates, study finds

September 19, 2017
A person's confidence in their own ability varies significantly depending on who is in their team, according to new research from the University of Stirling.

Video game boosts sex health IQ and attitudes in minority teens

September 18, 2017
A videogame designed by Yale researchers to promote health and reduce risky behavior in teens improves sexual health knowledge and attitudes among minority youth, according to a new study. The findings validate the value ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.