Tobacco companies aren’t the only ones profiting from the dangerous vaping trend.
When vaping illness struck America this summer, it brought e-cigarette culture — once a niche trend among the Instagram generation — into the spotlight. The mysterious sickness, now formally called EVALI (short for e-cigarette or vaping-product use associated lung injury) and suspected to be caused by bad additives in black-market THC vapes, has claimed at least 26 lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 1,299 cases of the disease have been reported in 49 states. In response to the crisis, the FDA announced plans to ban flavored e-cigarettes because of their effect on public health, with local governments already enacting such legislation.
The crisis also exposed the seedy marketing tactics vaping companies use to reach teens.
Vape influencers — young people paid to promote vaping products on social media — have raked in thousands of dollars hawking their smoking habit to followers.
Victoria Williams, a 26-year-old based in Savannah, Ga., with 58,000 Instagram followers, initially started vaping to kick her cigarette habit. For a year, she earned a decent living, being paid $20 to $300 per post — about $3,500 a month — by companies such as Skol Pods and Craze Liquids.
A typical post shows the tattooed Williams lounging outdoors, vape in hand.
“I [was] making enough to pay my rent and my bills, and [to] have a little extra to put in savings,” Williams says.
In July, a congressional report found that Juul Labs Inc. had spent more than $200,000 to recruit influencers and market to young people. Now, the FDA, Federal Trade Commission and Cogress are all investigating the social-media marketing of e-cigs.
“It’s clear that vaping is not safe,” says Joanna Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She believes that many vapefluencers are well aware of this, and glamorize the habit — whether they mean to or not. “It’s not always overt advertising,” she says. “It’s the messaging that these products are normal consumer products that someone might want to use.”
The FDA seems to agree: In June, it cracked down on four e-liquid manufacturers for failing to include the disclaimer, “WARNING: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical,” on their social-media posts, per the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.
But many influencers aren’t happy about this.
“I do use the warning labels, but I was a little reluctant,” says Manuel Urzua, 24. “I’m so into photography, and the warning labels make the pictures look so bad.”
Urzua started smoking cigarettes at 15, then took to vaping at 18 to wean himself off of cigs. Not long after, he fell into a lucrative gig as a vape promoter and trickster.
“I created three of the main vaping tricks that are used today. In one, you can make an ‘O’ and make it wobble,” says Urzua, who made $5,500 per month for the past three years through affiliate codes and paid promotions for brands such as Ruthless E Juice and Midnight Vapors.
But now, money is drying up as companies scale back marketing efforts amid public outrage. These days, Urzua is only pulling in about $2,000 monthly.
For health reasons, Urzua hopes to stop vaping altogether in the next two years, and to transition his online focus to “car stuff.” He also has an upcoming social-media deal with a headphone company. Still, he feels loyal to his e-juice business partners. “I like working with the product . . . It’s hard to let go of something you’ve been working at for so long.”
Some vapefluencers say that they have their own set of quality-control standards to avoid pushing bad products.
“I take time to test the product and ask if it was made pre-August 2016 because that’s when certain FDA regulations went into effect,” says Williams. “I vet the brands and try to be as responsible as I can be that the products are abiding by regulations.”
Others, such as Priscilla Gomez, a 22-year-old from Riverside, Calif., say they block underage followers.
“I look in my insights [an Instagram analytics tool] and look at my age demographic,” says Gomez, who declined to say how much she is paid for her sultry promotional spots for brands such as Vapetasia and Skol Pods. “If I spot underage accounts, I block them.”
The exact causes of vaping illness are still unclear — adding to the confusion over what is actually safe to promote. Williams notes that the lion’s share of vaping-related hospitalizations have been linked to black-market marijuana-derived products, or ones with vitamin E acetate, which aren’t what she works with.
“The only commonality between black-market THC cartridges and vaping is that you heat a liquid to produce a vapor,” she says, although there isn’t yet a consensus among the scientific community.
Still, she’s somewhat conscious of glorifying the potentially life-threatening habit.
CDC gives vaping-related lung illnesses a name
US vaping illnesses continue to rise but cause is still a mystery
De Blasio administration sues e-cigarette vendors for marketing to kids
Teen becomes first New Yorker to die of vaping-related illness
“I limit the amount of attraction to someone who doesn’t already vape as [much as] I can. I try to take pictures that are tasteful,” she says. “I love going to the beach and drinking coffee, and that’s what comes out in my posts. I’m not trying to enlist teenagers to vape.”
She and Cohen agree on something: Both believe that vape products should be taken off the shelves at corner stores and gas stations.
But Williams doesn’t think her well-compensated Instagramming has really encouraged that many young people to vape.
“I would be totally fine with shutting down and never posting another vaping photo again if that’s what it took [to stop teens from vaping],” she says. ”I just don’t think that I’m what’s encouraging teenagers to vape . . . Teenagers like to be rebellious.”
Source: Read Full Article