Online e-cigarette searches number in the millions, but few focus on vaping health risk or quitting smoking

A study published recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that Google searches about electronic cigarettes were more commonly related to shopping for e-cigarettes, while quitting smoking represented less than 1 percent of e-cigarette searches in each of 2013 and in 2014. The study’s senior author was Rebecca S. Williams, MHS, PhD, a UNC Lineberger member.

Online e-cigarette searches number in the millions, but few focus on vaping health risk or quitting smoking click to enlarge Rebecca S. Williams, MHS, PhD, is a UNC Lineberger member.

A new study has found that Google searches about electronic cigarettes were far more commonly related to shopping for e-cigarettes than they were about quitting smoking or the health effects of vaping.

The study, led by researchers from the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and San Diego State University as part of the Internet Tobacco Vendors Study, was published recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

“The e-cigarette industry, the media, and the vaping community have promoted the notion that e-cigarettes are an effective device for quitting smoking, yet what we’re seeing is that there are very few people searching for information about that,” said the study’s senior author Rebecca S. Williams, MHS, PhD, a UNC Lineberger member. “They are more commonly searching for terms like ‘buy,’ shop’ or ‘sale.’”

For the study, the researchers analyzed Google Trends search trends data, including 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.

They found there were more frequent searches related to buying e-cigarettes than there were searches about quitting smoking or health.  Searches about quitting smoking represented less than 1 percent of e-cigarette searches in each of 2013 and in 2014, and searches related to health concerns represented only 3 and 2 percent. Meanwhile, 6 and 11 percent of searches about e-cigarettes for those years included terms like “store,” “shop,” “sale,” or “buy.” In 2014, that would have meant there were more than 934,000 shopping-related searches.

Overall, the researchers found an increase in e-cigarette-related searches, with about 8.5 million on Google in 2014. That was up 450 percent from searches about e-cigarettes reported previously for 2010. Continuing the upward trend, the researchers projected that there would be 62 percent more searches for e-cigarettes on Google in 2015 than there were in 2014.

Looking at the geographic spread, they found that e-cigarette searches have spread from concentrated pockets in states such as Florida, Nevada and Texas to more uniform distribution around the country.

They also saw a change in the popular terms used to refer to the practice of e-cigarette smoking. Searches for the term “vaping” surpassed e-cigarette searches in May of 2014, the study found, and by December of that year, searches about vaping were 95 percent more common than searches about e-cigarettes.

“Labels do matter,” said the study’s first author John Ayers, PhD, MA, an Internet health expert at San Diego State University. “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.”

The study was funded by 5R01CA169189-02, RCA173299A, and T32CA009492 from the National Cancer Institute and U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Tobacco Products.

In addition to Williams and Ayers, other authors include: Benjamin M. Althouse, PhD, ScM of The Santa Fe Institute and the New Mexico State University Department of Biology; Jon-Patrick Allem, PhD, MA of the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine; Eric C. Leas, MPH, University of California San Diego School of Medicine; and Mark Dredze, PhD, of the John Hopkins Human Language Technology Center of Excellence.