Cartoons influencing young adults to vape, finds new study

A new study from the University of Southern California, Keck School of Medicine, concluded that the incidence of vaping among young people is rising because of advertising for e-cigarettes using cartoon characters. It appears that when never-users recognize the characters involved, it triggers positive expectations about the vaping product.

Image Credit: Aliaksandr Barouski / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Aliaksandr Barouski / Shutterstock

Vaping refers to the use of an aerosol containing nicotine, flavorings and other chemicals, inhaled and exhaled similar to ordinary cigarettes, from a battery-powered device. It is touted to help smokers quit, but has not been approved by the US FDA for this use. In fact, nicotine in any form is highly addictive, and instead of helping e-cigarette users to quit, most of them eventually use both traditional cigarettes and vaping.

The study was published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Previous studies incriminated the role of cartoon character Joe Camel, developed by R J Reynolds as brand mascot, in increasing product awareness and appeal of traditional cigarettes in the target group. “Joe” also helped establish initial and habitual cigarette use in this this group. In fact, one shocking study in 1991, published in the journal JAMA, showed that among preschool children, Joe Camel was as instantly recognizable as Mickey Mouse!

Earlier studies by the same researchers showed that e-cigarette vendors made use of the popular cartoon-based virtual reality game Pokemon Go to boost their online sales on Twitter. They also found that over one-fifth of Instagram images posted by manufacturers and vendors of e-liquids contained a cartoon.

The present study again confirms that cartoon-based marketing helps introduce and establish the use of novel products tobacco habit among young adults. It used information from two sets of young adults who filled out online surveys on their use of e-cigarettes. In the first set, 778 young adults who were 24 years old on average (over 60% being women), looked at 22 images of e-liquid packaging. Some of these images depicted cartoons while others did not. They were asked to specify if they recognized the characters.

The second study involved 522 participants about 30 years old on average, who viewed 24 e-liquid package images with and without cartoons, and rated the product’s appeal.

In the first set, never-users who recognized the cartoon images responded to the images positively in terms of choosing to use the product, with expectations of resulting increased social acceptability and enjoyable taste.  Product appeal did not show any significant link to cartoon-based marketing.

Study author Jon-Patrick Allen says: “Cartoons appear to be very effective at increasing susceptibility to use e-cigarettes among individuals who aren't using them to begin with. Among young adults who had never used e-cigarettes, we found a significant effect of cartoon-based marketing on their likelihood of using the products in the future.”  This agrees with the 2015 US surgeon-general report of a shocking 900% rise in vaping among high-school students, with 40% of youthful e-cigarette users never having smoked regular tobacco (which rules out their choice of vaping as a means to quit smoking).

Cartoon use for selling combustible cigarettes is strictly regulated. However, e-cigarette marketing is not. This has led to the use of cartoon characters in two ways: as company logos and as part of materials developed to promote e-cigarettes and e-liquid sale online, including on social media like Twitter and Facebook. While cartoons are not the only factor in the consumer’s decision to buy this product, they play an important role in helping to make up the consumer’s mind. This is similar to already perceived trends in marketing junk food and other products using cartoon characters.

In short, the current study brings out three salient points: firstly, cartoon characters are being deliberately used by e-cigarette manufacturers and vendors to target younger at-risk populations.  Secondly, these potential consumers are more likely to accept the product for initial use with positive expectations when they recognize the cartoon characters. And thirdly, such recognition predisposes these consumers to think favorably of the habit.

The study authors suggest that the way out is for policymakers to restrict this trend so that young consumers are not selectively targeted for this dangerous habit. Allen sums it up: “The data in this most recent study suggest a need for policies to extend restrictions on cartoon-based marketing of cigarettes to include marketing for e-cigarettes.”


Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.


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