A decidedly lit phenomenon is the subject of a new study from a group of Yale researchers: vape trick videos on YouTube.
The researchers previously found that — right behind fruity flavors — young people say vape tricks were one of the leading reasons they wanted to try vaping. So they took a quantitative look at the most popular vaping trick videos on YouTube to find out who’s making them and why they appeal to young people.
They found that the videos feature over 80 percent men. And that over half of those (mostly) bros were white.
More significantly, the researchers also found that nearly half of the videos were directly produced by vaping marketers or stores. It’s likely that the rest of the videos—many from vaping “influencers”—were actually sponsored by vaping companies, said lead researcher Grace Kong. The giveaway? Prominently featured products and logos.
Nearly half of the videos were directly produced by vaping marketers or stores
“I don’t know if the private accounts are true private accounts, because they could be getting paid,” Kong said.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, vaping (and Juuling) has spread so fast among teens that the U.S. Surgeon General has declared youth e-cigarette use an “epidemic.” According to a December 2018 survey from the National Institutes of Health, 37 percent of high school seniors reported vaping over the last month. Each Juul cartridge has about as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes. This is after teen smoking hit record lows throughout the 2010s.
Kong’s Tobacco Research in Youth group at Yale has been studying how vaping has become so appealing to teens. In a 2015 survey her team conducted, she asked respondents to write in why they wanted to try e-cigs. To her surprise, many of the surveyed kids actually wrote in vaping tricks.
That corresponded with another study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health that found that vape tricks were leading kids to start vaping in the first place. It found that 84 percent of e-cig users in the survey watched vape tricks online. YouTube is well-established as the platform that people — particularly younger people — go to when they’re looking for information.
These aren’t your daddy’s smoke rings. From the tiny Cheerios to the mesmerizing Ghost Inhale, the tricks these kids have come up with are, as Kong put it, “pretty cool.”
“It’s pretty amazing what you can do with vape tricks,” Kong said. “We found 25 distinct tricks that people could do. There are names for it, there’s this whole culture behind it. They have competitions. They make it like a sport event. People compete, do the coolest vape tricks, they perform in front of a crowd.”
And it’s extremely easy to access this “culture.” Kong’s team analyzed 59 videos, which were all of the videos on the first two pages of search results for intentionally broad search terms like “vape tricks” or “how to do vape tricks.” When you search “vaping” on YouTube from a blank account, three of the first four videos are of tricks.
Kong conceded that the sample size was small, but the point was to be representative, not necessarily to gather every single vape video out there. The research team looked at two pages of each search term, because they thought most people wouldn’t necessarily keep going past those first two pages.
They then excluded all the duplicates, videos uploaded more than one year ago, and videos longer than four minutes. That left the 59 videos — 22 of which appear in multiple search terms — that were the videos people seeking information about vaping or vape tricks were most likely to come upon in a YouTube search.
With the study’s subjects identified, researchers began to code, classify, and quantify the content. They identified all the named tricks, and recorded the amount of views and likes. The videos had a median view count of over 32,000, with some reaching into the multi-millions.
They quantified the demographics (age, race, and gender) of the tricksters who appear in the video; more than 60 percent were between 18 and 24. They also analyzed the content and found 32 percent of the videos contained profanity, with a truly trill 85 percent playing EDM or hip hop in the background.
Some of these statistics seem amusing, but they are also helping Kong’s team understand, for example, why a majority of teen vape users are male.
Kong thinks the main takeaway, however, is how much of a role the vaping industry played in producing these videos.
“What jumped out to me was the sponsors, the marketing sponsors of the videos, and industry accounts,” Kong said. “It was really the vaping organizations that were surprising.”
A YouTube spokesperson said that YouTube does not allow any tobacco product advertising on the platform. They also pointed out that YouTube requires people to follow federal advertising guidelines, and disclose when they are getting paid to promote a product. Not doing so can get you kicked off the platform.
However, that might not be enough in the murky world of online marketing. There’s nothing to stop an influencer from not disclosing a sponsorship, because YouTube only takes action when the video is reported. Additionally, vape trick videos aren’t directly advertising tobacco products. But as we know, the trick videos are a way to market to viewers.
“Social media is more obscure,” Kong said. “Tobacco marketing could occur in many subtle forms.”
Vape tricks also present a risk to the influencers who make them. When people spend hours practicing them, they could be inhaling a lot of nicotine and other chemicals. And many people who perform vape tricks modify their devices to achieve higher heat and bigger clouds of vapor. That could lead to inhaling more chemicals, or even the risk of device explosion.
Kong noted one limitation of the research.
“What we don’t know is who’s watching these videos,” Kong said. “I don’t have access to that data. We really need to match that data to human data to see whether youth are watching these videos.”
If it still seems odd to you, a rational person, that blowing vapor out of your nostrils in spirals and rings would be enough to get a conscientious member of Gen-Z to start vaping, we don’t blame you. But a lot of the appeal is looking cool in front of your friends.
“What we don’t know is who’s watching these videos.”
“With all types of tobacco products, friends are a huge influence on behavior,” Kong said.
The peer element, Kong pointed out, is much more difficult for health advocates to counter than something like flavors. So understanding the role that these tricks play could help fight the rise of teen vaping.
While “it’s hard to regulate friends,” as Kong said, it shouldn’t be difficult to remove or at least age-gate content that is indirectly marketing vaping products to youth. Until YouTube does that, vape tricks will keep racking up views.