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Vaping ads often target bisexual women of color, study finds

While many recent studies are exploring why vaping has caused more than 2,409 individuals to experience a severe lung injury called EVALI, researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute are looking into what motivated them to vape in the first place.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal Thursday, specifically zeroed in on why three sexual minorities (bisexual, lesbian and gay people) and people of color have a higher incidence of tobacco use and vaping — which, in turn, makes them more likely to experience cardiovascular disease and acute respiratory illness. The findings reveal that these groups — especially bisexual women of color — are more likely to be exposed to tobacco and vaping advertisements than their white, heterosexual counterparts.

To conduct the research, experts relied on data from the U.S. Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health (PATH), a national database of information on individual tobacco use. They asked more than 9,000 respondents from age 18 to 24 to review 20 different ads for tobacco and vaping, then asked them to recall whether they had seen them over the past 12 months — a concept referred to as “encoded exposure.”

Researchers concluded that people of color and bisexual individuals have a “significantly higher prevalence of encoded exposure” to both tobacco and e-cigarette ads. No notable discrepancy was found between lesbian women and their heterosexual counterparts, or gay men and straight men. But the highest rate of encoded exposure was among bisexual women of color.

Andy Tan, PhD, a researcher at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, as well as one of the study’s key authors, says data on the underlying reasons for this increased exposure isn’t available. Still, he says potential factors have been explored in the past and include “a confluence of historical and structural stigma affecting sexual minority women, people of color, norms of tobacco use, and the tobacco industry’s longstanding targeted marketing at vulnerable communities.”

What is certain, he says, is that this increased exposure can directly impact how many people decide to begin vaping. “There is prior research that even brief exposure to e-cigarette advertising increased susceptibility to trying these products among young people in an experimental setting and this may explain higher prevalence of vaping among those who have higher exposure to e-cig ads.”

The dangers of vaping — both short-term and long-term — have been widely discussed in the past few months. Those with EVALI (or e-cigarette and vaping associated product use lung injury), experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, fever, nausea and difficulty breathing. In at least 52 cases, this injury has been so severe it has been fatal.

Studies on the longterm effects are more limited, but research released this week from the University of California San Francisco suggests that those who vape regularly may be putting themselves at risk of lifelong conditions like asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Earlier studies have shown that vaping may also raise the risk of heart attack and coronary heart disease.

As for the main takeaway in this study, Tan says individuals should be more aware of who is attempting to influence their choices, and companies should be more cognizant of who they’re targeting. “The tobacco industry’s advertising affects certain vulnerable groups more than others —young adults, women, sexual minorities, and people of color,” Tan tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We need better vigilance on the industry’s unfair marketing practices and support for these groups to prevent tobacco use and help them quit successfully.”

Abby Haglage/Yahoo