The Oxford Dictionaries selected "vape"--as in, to smoke from an electronic cigarette or inhalation device --as word of the year in 2014. Internet users' search behavior tells a similar story.
E-cigarettes and other hand-held vaporizers began appearing on American shelves in the mid-2000s. Since then, they've quickly risen in popularity while regulators did not consider them under smoking legislation until late in 2015. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of people in the United States seeking information online about "vaping" rose dramatically, but since e-cigaretes are not allowed to be marketed as a smoking cessation tool, people are by and large searching for information on how and where to get vaping products rather than for information on quitting cigarette smoking.
"Big Tobacco has largely taken over the e-cigarette industry. Alongside unchecked marketing and advertising, e-cigarettes have exploded online," says San Diego State University scholar John W. Ayers, who co-wrote the paper as a part of the Internet Tobacco Vendors Study.
The reason for why he frames the numbers that way is unclear. Tobacco companies are just 2 percent of the e-cigarette market, so a tobacco company may be the largest, but the bulk of the market is independent shops. And neutral health experts that is every smoker switched to e-cigarettes, the world would be a far healthier place.
Internet users' search history bears this out. Ayers, Williams, and a team of colleagues from across the country examined search history from Google Trends, which includes statistics on what specific words people searched for, the search term's popularity relative to all other concurrent searches in a specified time, date and geographic location. From this data, the researchers can find patterns that point to Internet searchers' apparent preferences and attitudes.
When they looked at searches related to e-cigarettes starting in 2009, they found a sharply rising trend through 2015 with no end in sight. For example, in 2014 there were about 8.5 million e-cigarette-related Google searches. For 2015, their model forecasts an increase in these searchers of about 62-percent.
Looking at geographic data, they found that e-cigarette searches have diffused across the nation, suggesting that e-cigarettes have become a widespread cultural phenomenon in every U.S. state. Over the same time period, searches for e-cigarettes far outpaced other "smoking alternatives" such as snus (smokeless tobacco) or nicotine gum or patches.
Published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
What most concerns the researchers, though, is that when people search for e-cigarette information, they're using search terms like: "best e-cig," "buy vapes" or "shop vaping."
"One of the most surprising findings of this study was that searches for where to buy e-cigarettes outpaced searches about health concerns or smoking cessation," said University of North Carolina's Rebecca S. Williams. "Despite what the media and e-cigarette industry might have you believe, there is little research evidence to support the notion that e-cigarettes are safe or an effective tool to help smokers quit. Given that, we think it's revealing that there were fewer searches about safety and cessation topics than about shopping."
The confusion would be cleared up if the tobacco experts understood that it is illegal to advertise them as smoking cessation tools, unlike gums or patches, so searches would not reflect that. E-cigarettes are probably not very effective, that is true, but neither are gums or patches.
With no evidence saying e-cigarettes are harmful, people are not going to worry about it. Less than 1 percent of e-cigarette searches were about harm, and that number has declined over the past two years.
A linguistic trend also emerged from the study. The term "vaping" has quickly overtaken "e-cigarettes" as the preferred nomenclature in the United States. That is a good idea, e-cigarette is a terrible name with a lot of baggage. Smoking trends are learned primarily through surveys, so knowing which terms people use can affect the accuracy of this data.
The authors recommend buying such keywords on Google to stop e-cigarettes - by lumping them in with smoking and doing counter-advertising.
"Labels do matter," Ayers said. "When you call it 'vaping,' you're using a brand new word that doesn't have the same historical baggage as 'smoking' or 'cigarette.' They've relabeled it. Health campaigns need to recognize this so they can keep up."