Maryland's Tobacco Resource Center - Linking Professionals to Best Practices

How Big Tobacco is Exploiting COVID-19

Across the world, countries have varied in the tactics that they have commissioned to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. These tactics often include different policies about wearing masks, staying 6 feet apart from others, washing your hands, and limiting travel by staying at home. 1  Unfortunately, during this pandemic and the panic with it, tobacco and vaping companies saw a way to exploit this public health crisis.

Tobacco industries accomplish this by attempting to shift their image to be a public health ally during the COVID-19 pandemic. One tactic that they are using is to provide vital health enhancing resources to countries in need of them.2 This is done by promotions that offer high demand items such as free toilet paper, face masks, or hand sanitizer, with qualifying purchases of tobacco products. One key article published in Tobacco Control in August 2020 found more than 300 COVID-related ads from 21 e-cigarette brands and 41 online stores.3 Another similar analysis has shown that this is specifically happening in at least 28 countries.4  The COVID-19 related messages vary, but all are focused on having smokers continue to smoke, or targeting new smokers.

Essential Supplies

Figure 1 depicts some photo examples of essential pandemic supplies (eg, hand sanitizers, masks and toilet paper) offered by tobacco companies as an incentive to purchase products. 3 Brands including Vintage Vapo, MigVapor, and Vape Sourcing have added essential pandemic supplies for sale with their logo including hand sanitizers and facemasks.3 Note that some of the hand sanitizers come in the company’s e-liquid bottles, which can cause  potential accidental use in a vaping device.3

Figure 1

 

Discounts and Health Messages

Additional companies are trying to provide safety messages within their advertisements as can be seen in Figure 2. For example, Wild Vape’s: ‘Stay Home – Shop Online. Let Us Do the Rest’ message is implying that they are aiding you to stay safe while shopping their products online.3  Many e-cigarette and vape shops have provided pandemic-themed discounts, such as offering 19% off nicotine e-liquids by entering the code “COVID-19”. The company Loon uses a 20% discount promo code ‘Staysafe’ again implying that purchasing and using their products at home are an essential part of remaining safe. 3

Interestingly, PHIX gives a series of safety recommendations in one of their ads, depicted in figure 2, including: ‘Avoid Sharing Your Device’. 3 As, vaping has been linked to COVID-19 risk in teens and young adults, highlighting that youth who vape are five to seven times more likely to be infected with COVID-19 than their peers who do not vape. 5 This higher risk related to vaping is believed to be linked to youth believing their age protects them from catching COVID-19, e-cigarettes damaging youth’s lungs, and that youth often share their e-cigarettes with peers which can easily spread COVID-19 through repetitive hand to mouth exchanges. 5 This type of safety message by PHIX is an attempt to be seen as a public health ally during the pandemic.

Figure 2

 

Quarentine Messages

As can be seen in Figure 3, a number of e-cigarette advertisements specifically have COVID-19 quarantine themes. By endorsing and marketing with “Stay at Home” social media hashtags companies are attempting to promote vaping as a healthy and safe thing to do during the pandemic. Many of these messages also market that e-cigarettes will alleviate the stress of sheltering at home by using vaping as a means of coping with the confinement.3

There has also been an uptick in advertisements focusing on youth that are stuck in their bedrooms and are participating in virtual classrooms. 2 The e-cigarette Puff Bar has many flavors and currently is capitalizing on the pandemic by marketing to youth. These advertisements show images on bedrooms or individuals relaxing on couches to and promote their brand as a means to take a “solo break” from “back-to-back Zoom calls and parental texts.” What is more concerning is that Puff Bar is now the most popular disposable e-cigarette brands among young people, meaning that these advertisements have far reaching impact to youth. 6