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E-cigarette users look to social media to circumvent flavored e-cigarette restrictions

Faced with quickly changing flavored e-cigarette policies and imminent removal of their favorite products, many e-cigarette users turned to social media to discuss strategies to work around these policies.

According to Truth Initiative research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, e-cigarette users published over 166,000 posts and comments on Reddit around the time the Food and Drug Administration issued guidance that restricted the sale of many flavored e-cigarettes. The guidance impacted the availability of many flavors of JUUL and other flavored pod-based e-cigarettes.  Most posts were about products that were still available or alternatives that were compatible with JUUL, showing how users easily seek out alternative flavored products when faced with partial flavor restrictions. The study found that a substantial portion of the conversation on Reddit involved seeking information about evading newly enacted flavor restrictions. More than one in three such posts (39%) sought advice on disposable or refillable substitute brands, two product types that were excluded from the flavor restrictions.

The study underscores the need for comprehensive flavored e-cigarette policies that don’t leave loopholes for certain product types or flavors. Findings are especially relevant today as the Food & Drug Administration flip flops on removing JUUL from the market and young people continue using e-cigarettes at epidemic levels, with many citing flavors as a leading reason for why they started vaping in the first place.

Line up of a Vuse, JUUL, and Puff Bar

Flavored tobacco policies evolve rapidly to address vaping epidemic

Are flavored vapes banned?

Policies around flavored e-cigarettes are rapidly evolving. After an outbreak of vaping-related lung injuries in September 2019, JUUL voluntarily removed pods in flavors other than tobacco and menthol. Not long after, FDA issued a guidance removing all flavored pod-based e-cigarettes from the market in January 2020. In June 2022, FDA announced that it would not allow the marketing and sales of JUUL e-cigarettes, but then walked back its recommendation a few weeks later by temporarily suspending its order banning JUUL while it conducts further review. On top of rapidly changing federal policy on flavored e-cigarettes, many states and localities have introduced flavored tobacco policies including flavored e-cigarettes while waiting for federal action.

Turning to social media to find banned e-cigarette products

Where are teens buying vapes?

Reddit, a social media discussion platform with over 440 million active users, hosts moderated, topic-specific forums called subreddits. Because it provides a platform for in-depth, anonymous discussions, Reddit is a valuable starting point to uncover ways that consumers circumvent flavored tobacco product policies, the authors write.

Researchers identified over 166,000 posts and comments between May 2019 and May 2020 on the subreddit r/JUUL, using keyword filters to find discussions specifically about flavored e-cigarette products and strategies to work around flavor policies. Of the 166,000 posts and comments, 33,000 were identified as relevant to flavors while 7,500 were explicit discussions on how to evade FDA policy prohibiting flavors.

Shifting to available e-cigarette flavors

What vape products are teens using?

More than one in three (39%) of the 7,500 posts sought advice on disposable or refillable substitute brands that offered newly unavailable flavors, including specific refillable pod device brands like Vuse and Smok – the two most popular e-cigarette brands after JUUL and Puff Bar – as well as Caliburn, Voopoo, Novo and OVNS, a refillable pod brand compatible with JUUL devices. Nearly a quarter (23%) of posts offered advice on product availability in localities where the ban had recently gone into effect, such as Massachusetts and Michigan; 20% asked about acquiring products online; and 16% were about importing products from other countries.

Disposable e-cigarette use among high school students rose 1000% during 2019-2020 after federal regulations on flavored e-cigarettes with notable loopholes for disposable products went into effect.

Overall activity on the thread r/JUUL peaked around the time of the vaping-related lung injury outbreak in September 2019 and when FDA issued guidance restricting flavored e-cigarette product sales in January 2020, according to the study. Active discussions after the FDA guidance went into place centered on eliminated products that e-cigarettes users can “still get” or “JUUL compatible” alternatives, including specific brands, brick and mortar locations, and specific flavors. The study also finds that 95% of posts discussing implications of the flavor restrictions focused on alternative means of acquiring eliminated products or soliciting similar alternative products.

Calls for stronger flavored tobacco policies

What will happen if e-cigarettes are banned?

Discussions on social media platforms like Reddit can provide a window into how people react to flavored tobacco policies and their unintended consequences, especially when policies are new or in flux. “These findings highlight both the utility of Reddit for evaluating the public’s response and the potential limitations of newly enacted [flavored tobacco product] policy,” the authors write.

Many flavored e-cigarette products remain on the market while FDA completes its reviews and the regulation of JUUL is in flux. Study findings underscores the problem with flavored e-cigarette policies that keep alternate products on the market while banning others. The authors write, “…piecemeal approaches to flavor policy are unlikely to be effective since tech-savvy users can turn to social media platforms such as Reddit to identify gaps and loopholes in existing flavored tobacco product policies.”