Iowa study examines TikTok videos that promote e-cigarette culture

Published on March 22, 2022

A new student-led study from the University of Iowa College of Public Health examines the role that user-generated content on the social media platform TikTok plays in promoting Puff Bar culture. Puff Bar is a brand of disposable e-cigarette available in flavors that appeal to youth.

Social media has become a key medium for pro-e-cigarette messaging, whether through direct advertising, social media influencers, or messages from regular social media users. According to researchers, the messaging especially impacts adolescents and young adults who are both a target for the e-cigarette industry and frequent social media users.

In a paper published recently in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers at the University of Iowa examined Puff Bar and e-cigarette-related content on TikTok, a popular social media platform where users create, share, and view short videos. According to the research team, the objective was to classify the types of user-generated content and messages about Puff Bar on TikTok.

Uncovering New Insights

Makayla Morales, an undergraduate public health student at the UI and lead author of the paper, says the TikTok platform seemed like an obvious choice for the study since it’s fairly new, extremely popular, and little to no e-cigarette research has been conducted on the app.

“I thought the video-sharing aspect of the platform would provide interesting insight into Puff Bar use in a way that text-based apps were not able to,” she says. “Fortunately, I was correct, and we were able to see some really cool themes and genres emerge in our data.”

The study revealed seven genres of Puff Bar related video content: skits and stories, shared vaper experiences, product reviews, product unboxing, promotion of Puff Bar, videos to show off, and crafts. By classifying this content, the researchers hope that the information will be used by prevention organizations to better understand youth e-cigarette use and trends.

“I think it will be beneficial for these organizations to see what young e-cigarette users are saying about the nicotine products they use and develop subsequent messaging from it,” Morales says.

Lexi Fahrion, a Master of Public Health student at the UI and co-author of the study, says that there were some surprises that emerged from the study.

“Many e-cigarette users seemed to express their awareness of the potential dangers of e-cigarette use in their videos, but ultimately didn’t let that stop them from vaping,” she says. “I had previously assumed that more people would be unaware of potential risks.”

“From personal experience on the app, I saw how heavily alcohol content was regulated or taken down if the creators appeared to be under 21. That same level of regulation didn’t appear to also apply to underage e-cigarette content,” she says.

Fahrion also noted the lack of regulation of e-cigarette content on TikTok, despite the community guidelines on substance use.

photo of Puff Bar e-cigarettes in various flavors
Puff Bar disposable e-cigarettes. Photo courtesy of truth initiative.

Social Media Research Projects

The study provided additional benefits in the classroom, according to Shannon Lea Watkins, assistant professor of community and behavioral health. Watkins served as senior author of the study and mentors a team of students working on several collaborative social media projects.

Lexi Fahrion, Shannon Lea Watkins, and  Makayla Morales
Researchers (from left) Lexi Fahrion, Shannon Lea Watkins, and Makayla Morales examined the role that user-generated content on TikTok plays in promoting e-cigarettes.

Watkins says she used her team’s experience to develop a final class project in which graduate students designed and implemented entire qualitative research studies using social media data or other existing documents.

“I incorporated some of our study materials into class, including the data collection protocol, the analytic approaches and software we used, and Makayla’s innovative and award-winning submission to the college’s video contest. I also shared tips from my student researchers with students in my class,” she says.

“The final projects were wonderful. Students leverage social media data and other available data to study a variety of topics, including alcohol use disorder recovery, COVID-19 vaccines, intimate partner violence, and mental illness,” Watkins says. “I know the students really pushed themselves to make meaning from the datasets they created, and I am a stronger researcher because of the time I spent working with them on their creative projects.”

This research was funded by the American Cancer Society, administered through the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Iowa [IRG – 18-165-43] and by the University of Iowa College of Public Health.