The landscape of youth tobacco use is evolving. Despite a decline in youth e-cigarette use from 2022 to 2023, an estimated 4.7 million middle school and high school students in the United States have used e-cigarettes. This trend is alarming as it introduces nicotine to a naïve audience, potentially leading to lifelong addiction.

Social media, particularly TikTok, plays a pivotal role in initiating discussions and shaping teenagers’ attitudes and opinions around e-cigarettes. With 63% of teens using TikTok in 2023, the platform’s influence cannot be overstated. A recent study found that this popular social media had a marked increase in content promoting e-cigarettes, including illegal sales to underage users.

The study uncovered a disturbing trend: vendors, including self-proclaimed small business owners, selling e-cigarettes through TikTok using creative tactics like #puffbundles and #vapebundles. These bundles often include candy and other items, making them attractive and seemingly harmless to young buyers. Such practices effectively avoid minimum legal sales age and flavor restriction laws. Vendors also use TikTok to link to other platforms like Telegram, a messaging application, where transactions can be completed away from the public eye. This multi-platform strategy complicates enforcement efforts. The study suggests that enforcement agencies should conduct sting operations on platforms like TikTok to close these regulatory gaps and increase enforcement of existing laws and regulations. Additionally, social media companies need to refine their algorithms to better detect and shut down accounts engaged in illegal e-cigarette sales.

The findings from this study shed light on the sophisticated methods vendors use to sell e-cigarettes to underage users on TikTok. As the e-cigarette epidemic among youth continues, it is imperative that regulatory agencies and social media platforms collaborate to enforce laws and protect young people from the dangers of nicotine addiction.

By raising awareness and advocating for our youth, we can work towards a future where their health and well-being are safeguarded against the harms of e-cigarettes.

Dobbs, P. D., Schisler, E. D., & McCormick, C. (2024). #Discreetshipping: Selling E-cigarettes on TikTok. Nicotine & tobacco research: official journal of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, ntae081. Advance online publication.