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New Study Suggests Majority of Social Media Accounts Following JUUL E-Cigarette Company on Twitter Belong to Underage Youth

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — A study of the Twitter account of JUUL e-cigarette products estimates that 80.6 percent of its followers are 13 to 20 years old with 44.9 percent of those followers only 13-17 years old, well under the legal age of 21 to purchase tobacco products in large parts of the country. In most states and localities, the legal age to purchase tobacco products is 18 excepting 450 localities and nine states where the legal age is 21 years. 

“As sales of e-cigarettes have increased exponentially in recent years, and vaping becomes more popular among the nation’s youth, these study results represent an emerging public health issue by highlighting how young people can be easily exposed to social media marketing messages of new tobacco products,” said Annice Kim, PhD, RTI International senior health scientist, director of Health Media Impact and Digital Analytics Program and lead study author. “Brands need better age and demographic analytics from social media companies to help ensure that the nation’s youth are protected from aggressive marketing for age-restricted products.”

Currently, stringent age verification procedures are not in place on social media platforms to restrict the marketing of age-restricted products like e-cigarettes to underage youth. “Without strict age gating procedures, youth are likely being exposed to tobacco product marketing online,” explains Kim. “We know from prior studies that exposure to tobacco marketing is associated with more positive attitudes about tobacco products and increased likelihood of tobacco use.”

RTI International designed the study, collected the data, conducted the analysis and led the writing of the manuscript. To predict the age of JUUL’s Twitter followers, RTI first collected and mined publicly available data on the followers of JUUL’s Twitter account and then applied a custom age prediction algorithm developed at RTI to determine whether the Twitter account belongs to a youth, young adult or adult based on their tweeting behavior and language use. With this information, they were able to estimate whether JUUL’s account followers are underage and may be exposed to JUUL’s marketing online.

The study was jointly funded by RTI and Truth Initiative, America’s largest nonprofit public health organization dedicated to making tobacco use a thing of the past.

RTI has deep experience in research on e-cigarette products and trends. More information can be found at www.rti.org/emerging-issue/e-cigarette-research. RTI’s Center for Data Science tackles emerging public health challenges in the digital age. Learn more at www.rti.org/centers/rti-center-data-science.