Social Media’s Influence on Vaping

Social media has many benefits, but it also brings risks, especially when it comes to spreading misinformation about electronic cigarettes and influencing people not to quit smoking. A new piece of research has looked at whether spreading inaccurate knowledge and misperceptions of harm influences cigarette smokers to avoid trying vaping.

Published in Digital Health this month, “Effects of brief exposure to misinformation about e-cigarette harms on Twitter on knowledge and perceptions of e-cigarettes” covers a research project conducted jointly by British and American academics.

The findings of this paper are important because one of the main researchers has been producing very negative and highly criticised studies about vaping for many years.

With this in mind, it is striking that the team begin by stating: “E-cigarettes are a contentious public health issue in both the US and UK. Current evidence indicates that the short-term harm caused by e-cigarettes equates to only 5% of the harm caused by regular tobacco cigarettes.”

Why is this a big deal? Because a number of American researchers (including this one) have previously denied that the UK’s finding that vaping is “at least 95% safer than smoking” is valid. The acceptance that it is correct marks a serious shift in honest comment.

Moreover, the paper states “e-cigarettes may help to reduce smoking- related morbidity and mortality by providing a viable alter- native for adult smokers”. Again, a striking admission from a man who has previously rejected such a proposition.

The group note the big problem: “Despite current evidence, misperceptions of the relative harms of e-cigarettes are increasing. The proportion of UK smokers who perceived e-cigarettes to be just as harmful as combustible cigarettes increased from 26% in 2014 to 38% in 2020. These findings are significant for public health interventions, as evidence has shown that for every 1% increase in misperceptions among current smokers, mean prevalence of e-cigarette use decreases by 0.48%.”

In other words, the more half-truths and complete lies made about vaping, the fewer smokers try to switch and remain smoking.

They say: “One potential cause of these misperceptions may be exposure to misinformation on social media.”

The team conducted an online randomised controlled experiment covering a sample of 2400 adult US and UK cigarette smokers who did not currently use e-cigarettes. Participants viewed four tweets in one of four conditions: 1) e-cigarettes are as or more harmful than smoking, 2) e-cigarettes are completely harmless, 3) e-cigarette harms are uncertain and 4) control (physical activity). They then assessed what the adults knew and thought about e-cigarettes.

They discovered that reading misinformation on Twitter did indeed corrupt people’s accurate knowledge about e-cigs and vaping. They said that action needs to be taken to prevent the sharing of misinformation as the opinions then become ingrained and people harden in opposition to the idea of switching.