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Young people’s exposure to e-cigarette marketing in shops investigated

Professor Sally Haw
Chair in Public and Population Health Professor Sally Haw

Links between the retail environment and young people’s use of e-cigarettes have been investigated for the first time as part of a major study led by the University of Stirling.

The DISPLAY study, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), is a six year collaborative project between the universities of Stirling, St. Andrews and Edinburgh and ScotCen Social Research. It aims to assess the impact of the ban on the display of tobacco at point of sale (POS) on teenager’s smoking attitudes and behaviours.

In a series of papers, the DISPLAY team report new research findings on e-cigarettes based on a cross-sectional study involving 3,808 students between 11 and 18 years of age in four high schools in Scotland.

The team found there has been a sharp increase in the marketing of e-cigarettes in shops and that awareness of this marketing is associated with adolescents reporting that they had tried an e-cigarette or intended to try one in the future.

In this age group, greater awareness of cigarette brands was also associated with having tried an e-cigarette.

The tobacco control experts carried out an audit of e-cigarette marketing in almost 100 shops and found that the number of stores with purpose built displays more than doubled over a 12 month period, with displays located close to products of interest to children in more than a third of stores.

The team also examined the effect that e-cigarette visibility has had on young people. In the sample of secondary school children, they found that those who recalled seeing e-cigarette displays in small shops were twice as likely to have tried an e-cigarette or were significantly more likely to report that they intended to try them in the next six months. Most adolescents in the study who reported using e-cigarettes had only tried them once and twice and were not regular users.

Professor Sally Haw, Chair in Public and Population Health, said: “E-cigarettes are much less harmful than tobacco products and show promise as a stop smoking aid for adults. Therefore, it is reassuring that in our school survey we found that e-cigarette use is largely limited to occasional use among a small group of young people who already smoke.

“However, in this study, the first of its kind, we did find a relationship between exposure to e-cigarettes in the retail environment and the reported use of e-cigarettes by young people.”

Dr Catherine Best, Public Health Researcher, said: “The prevalence of e-cigarette displays on our high streets has increased markedly and at a time when tobacco is moving out of public view.

“It is currently unclear whether young people who plan to try e-cigarettes do so because they notice e-cigarettes at point of sale or whether they notice e-cigarettes because they intend to try them in the future. Until this association is established, we need to consider how to balance promoting the benefits of e-cigarettes for adult smokers who want to quit with the need to discourage children from experimenting with these products.”

Professor Haw added: “The  Health (Tobacco, Nicotine etc. and Care) (Scotland) Bill completed its passage through the Scottish Parliament in early March and makes e-cigarettes an age restricted product, available only to individuals 18 years of age or older.

“However, the Bill as passed does not ban point of sale marketing. Given that this study established a link between the retail environment and young people’s use of and intention to try e-cigarettes, we need to have a careful and considered debate about the role of POS marketing in the promotion of e-cigarettes.”