Tobacco companies offering harmful products are not the only ones to profit from the life-threatening vaping trend.
When America was struck by a mysterious vaping-linked illness this summer, the e-cigarette culture, which was once a niche trend among the Instagram users, was brought into the notoriety.
Bad additives in the black market THC vapes have been suspected as the root of the e-cigarette or vaping-product use associated lung injury (now formally known as EVALI). These devices have claimed about 26 lives, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
In 49 different states, at least 1299 cases have been reported of the disease. FDA has announced the ban on e-cigarette e-juice (flavors) in response to this crisis citing the effects it has on public health, meanwhile, the government (locally) is already enacting its legislation.
The crisis also spilled the beans on the run-down marketing strategies adopted by the vaping companies to reach out to teens. Young people on social media are known as Vape Influencers and they get paid to promote such vaping products on their social media accounts and have raked in 1000s of dollars to promote smoking habits into their young followers.
Savannah-based Victoria Williams, a 26-year-old girl who has 58,000 followers on Instagram initially started to vape to kick out her habit of smoking traditional cigarettes. She used to get paid $20 to $300 per post for a year while she earned a decent living (about $3,500 per month) which was getting paid by companies like Craze Liquids and Skol Pods.
If you have a look at a typical post by her then it shows her with tattoos lounging somewhere outdoor with a vape in her hand. She says, “I [was] making enough to pay my rent and my bills, and [to] have a little extra to put in savings.”
According to the congressional report of July, it was found that the Juul Labs had recruited influencers by spending more than $200,000 to market the vape to young adults. All social media marketing of electronic cigarettes is under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, FDA, and Congress.
Joanna Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says, “It’s clear that vaping is not safe.” According to her many social media vape influencers are already aware of this but still, they continue to glamorize this habit whether they do it consciously or not. “It’s not always overt advertising. It’s the messaging that these products are normal consumer products that someone might want to use.” She added.
It was cracked down by FDA in June that four e-juice manufacturers did not add the disclaimer, “WARNING: This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical,” in their social media posts which is necessary as per the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.
Although many social media influencers do not look very happy about this, Manuel Urzua, 24-year old says, “I do use the warning labels, but I was a little reluctant. I’m so into photography, and the warning labels make the pictures look so bad.”
Urzua started smoking traditional cigarettes at the age of 15; he took vaping as an alternative to wean him from cigarettes. After sometime he got into vape promoter lucrative gig and trickster.
He says, “I created three of the main vaping tricks that are used today. In one, you can make an ‘O’ and make it wobble.” He made $5,500 every month from the last three years via paid promotion and affiliate codes for different brands such as Midnight Vapors and Ruthless E-juice.
Much to his chagring, money is now drying up as companies are opting to scale back their marketing efforts due to public outrage. At the moment, Urzua is only earning about $2,000 monthly. Williams, on the other hand, is still down to one existing contract.
“Last month I had to borrow money from my dad to pay for my rent. My car is overdue for an oil change. I’m late on credit card payments,” says Williams.
In the next two years, Urzua hopes to stop vaping completely for health reasons and focus on his online car business. Meanwhile, he is looking forward to a social media deal with a company that sells headphones.
He is still loyal to the e-juice companies that provided him business, “I like working with the product. It’s hard to let go of something you’ve been working at for so long.”
On the other hand, some of the influencers of vape say that they have set their standard to control quality and that’s how they avoid promoting 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. I vet the brands and try to be as responsible as I can be that the products are abiding by regulations.”
Other influencers like Priscilla Gomez who is 22 years old from California say that they block underage followers.
“I look in my insights [an Instagram analytics tool] and look at my age demographic. If I spot underage accounts, I block them,” says Gomez. Although, when asked she declined to reveal how much she gets paid for her sultry promotional posts for brands such as Skol Pods and Vapetasia.
While the actual cause of vaping illness is still not clear, what is safe to promote is adding more confusion to it. According to Williams, Lion’s share of vaping related illnesses is related to black market-derived marijuana products or the one that includes vitamin E acetate and she does not work with any of them.
“The only commonality between black-market THC cartridges and vaping is that you heat a liquid to produce a vapor.” She said. While there is no consensus among the community of researchers yet, she is still conscious of glamourizing the life-threatening habit on social media.
“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. 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.”
One thing both, she and Cohen agreed on is that the products related to vape should be taken off the shelves from the store corners and gas stations.
Williams doesn’t believe that she highly paid Instagram posts may have encouraged a teenager to take on vaping.
“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]. I just don’t think that I’m what’s encouraging teenagers to vape. Teenagers like to be rebellious.”