E-cigarette use is increasing dramatically among adolescents as social media marketing portrays “vaping” products as healthier alternatives to conventional cigarettes. In September 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched an anti-vaping campaign, in U.S. high schools, on social media and other platforms, emphasizing “The Real Cost” of e-cigarettes. Using a novel deep learning approach, we assessed changes in vaping-related content on Instagram from 2017 to 2019 and drew an inference about the initial impact of the FDA’s Real Cost campaign on Instagram.
We collected 245,894 Instagram posts that used vaping-related hashtags (e.g., #vape, #ejuice) in four samples from 2017 to 2019. We compared the “like” count from these posts before and after the FDA campaign. We used deep learning image classification to analyze 49,655 Instagram image posts, separating images of men, women and vaping devices. We also conducted text analysis and topic modeling to detect the common words and themes in the posted captions.
Since September 2018, the FDA-sponsored hashtag #TheRealCost has been used about 50 times per month on Instagram, whereas vaping-related hashtags we tracked were used up to 10,000 times more often. Comparing the pre-intervention (2017, 2018) and post-intervention (2019) samples of vaping-related Instagram posts, we found a three-fold increase in the median “like” count (10 vs. 28) and a six-fold increase in the proportion of posts with more than 100 likes (2% vs. 15%). Over 70% of Instagram vaping images featured e-juices and devices, with a growing number of images depicting a “pod,” the type of discrete vaping device that delivers high concentration of nicotine and is favored by novice e-cigarette users. In addition, the Instagram analytics data shared by the vaping influencers we interviewed showed underage Instagram users among their followers.