Searching online, researchers found 21 vaping-related entities – including manufacturers, distributors and review websites – offering a total of 40 scholarships to high school and college students in the U.S., according to the report in the journal Tobacco Control.
“E-cigarette scholarships to youth and young adults are concerning particularly now because of the vaping epidemic,” said coauthor Dr. Adam Goldstein, director of tobacco intervention programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Having youth write essays about the positive benefits of vaping at the same time as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has increased age restrictions to 21 shows a disconnect between the industries trying to increase vaping use and the policy makers trying to decrease such use among youth,” he told Reuters Health.
Such scholarships should be prohibited, Goldstein said. “And colleges need to reexamine whether they want to be complicit in the promotion of these activities, explicit or implicit.”
After hearing about examples of vaping-company scholarships, Goldstein and colleagues wanted to know more about the practice.
They searched online for documents related to scholarship opportunities from e-cigarette and vaping companies targeted to youth or young adults. Ultimately, they discovered 21 vaping-related entities, some offering multiple scholarship types. The scholarships ranged in value from $300 to $5,000.
Most required an essay submission, with “most listing prompts related to e-cigarettes or eliciting information about the benefits of vaping,” the researchers note.
Some sites suggested that students write essays in response to questions such as: “What are the different types of e-cigarettes and what would you recommend?” and “Why do you think vaping is a safer alternative (to smoking cigarettes)?”
Roughly one in four sites either had no age restrictions or required only that the applicant be in high school.
“I think this has been flying under the radar,” Goldstein said, adding that he hopes “with increased scrutiny and pressure, the whole issue will change quickly.”
Dr. Albert Wu was taken aback by the findings. “But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” said Wu, an internist and a professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. “It sadly appears to be another example where the truth is more shameless than fiction.”
“The harms of industry-funded scholarships for tobacco and alcohol are well known,” Wu said. “What is thinly veiled as a benefit is really a sleazy tactic for seducing underage youth into the fold of e-cigarette use. This presents a strong argument for regulation. This needs to be brought out into the open so it can be shut down.”
The “scary” part is that “kids may not be thinking of this as an advertising strategy targeted towards them,” said Dr. Michael Lynch. “It’s certainly disturbing when you think about the fact that it relates to something the primary audience isn’t even legally permitted to do – and they’re asking young people to describe the products and their potential benefits.”
These kinds of scholarships also offer companies an inexpensive way to get a focus group, Lynch said. “People like me can’t, say, tell how a 16-year-old thinks, but a whole bunch of 16-year-olds motivated by a few thousand dollars can,” he said.
Given that e-cigarette companies have been claiming they aren’t targeting youth, “the hypocrisy is evident,” he noted.
One industry representative contacted for comment did not support the vaping-scholarship strategy.
“It’s idiotic and irresponsible,” said Ray Story, CEO of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Association, an international nonprofit trade association. “I cannot think of any reason to put a scholarship out there for high school and college students when those individuals cannot even participate in this category.”
The companies doing this are “throwing caution to the winds and saying to hell with the law,” Story said. “For them to do this shows the industry has to evolve and have mature players take over. This kind of thing hurts the entire category.”