When The Vaping Industry Offers Scholarships, Is It Marketing To Teens?

Jan 8, 2020

While policymakers and parents are wringing their hands about how to get kids not to vape, a number of e-cigarette companies are offering college scholarships to teens. Authors of a new report in the journal Tobacco Control interpret the scholarships as a possible marketing scheme.

The report looked at the prevalence of these scholarships and the types of essay questions they ask high school students. Some ask teens to write essays about vaping -- often with questions about the benefits of e-cigarettes over traditional cigarettes.

Perhaps the most openly promotional question comes from the vaping product reviewer E Cigarette Pros’ annual essay writing contest, which offers a $2,500 prize:

“‘What are the different types of e-cigarettes? And what would you recommend?’ I mean, that alone is inappropriate,” said co-author Adam Goldstein, director of Tobacco Intervention Programs at UNC Chapel Hill.

Goldstein said he’s concerned that e-cigarette industry players are using the scholarships to quietly market to teens amid a vaping epidemic.

“Over 28 percent of youth in the latest studies have shown that they are using -- and many are addicted -- to a future generation of nicotine. These are the same products that we’re trying to get kids unequivocally not to use,” Goldstein said.

Big industry names like Juul have repeatedly denied marketing to youth, despite offering candy flavored e-liquids to vape. Juul does not offer any scholarships, but some of its competitors and online reviewers do.

WUNC received responses from two e-cigarette companies that the study found used essay questions related to vaping.

Mig Vapor manager Melissa Burgos denied knowing anything about the company’s 2018-2019 scholarship and web links to the scholarship page are dead; however, internet archives show the webpage existed in March 2019.

A representative of e-cigarette distributor Vape Habitat emailed the following response:

“We offer this scholarship to students for them to learn more about vaping, smoking and their differences. We would like to lead them to a non-smoking lifestyle, with the help of vaping or without it, it's their choice. We are not asking students to buy any products whatsoever. We will publish all essays on our website with some voting options for the writers who get the most votes to get additional prizes. The main goal is to move the new generation from big tobacco killing products to a safer alternative - vaping low-nicotine e-liquids or to quit at all.”   

E Cigarette Pros did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Scholarships Offered Across the Country

Goldstein became curious about these scholarships after hearing that one was listed on Harvard's financial aid website, and added the study shows it is not an isolated incident.

“We were surprised to find out this was happening really across the country for over 20 different entities offering over 40 scholarships that youth could apply for,” Goldstein said.

As a public health professional, he said he’s worried about the ripple effect when colleges and high schools promote these scholarships as sources of financial aid.

“Because [21 scholarships] may not seem like a lot on first blush, but if it's listed everywhere then that means potentially any kid applying to any college might look at these,” Goldstein said.

Of the 21 e-cigarette makers, distributors and reviewers that offer scholarships, about half ask teens to write essays about vaping. Some ask questions about the benefits of medical marijuana.

Many students who might apply for these scholarships cannot legally use vaping products. Up until a federal rule change last month that raised the tobacco buying age to 21, the legal age to buy e-cigarettes in North Carolina was 18, but a number of scholarships didn't limit underage students from applying.

“Everyone knows that nicotine addiction for teens and developing brains is harmful. We also know that it can be a gateway to regular cigarette use,” Goldstein said. “Essays that require kids to write about potential positive benefits, from their perspective as kids, really is manipulating kids in ways that is disingenuous.”

The study found 11 companies stated on their websites that they reserve the right to use responses for purposes other than scholarship selection, such as advertising.

“We wouldn't allow beer manufacturers to market products to young kids,” Goldstein said.  “I think we should be taking the same approach now with youth that we take a hard look and say, you know, this is probably not good.”

Goldstein’s next research project will be to look at how many colleges and universities publicize the vaping industry-funded scholarships.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the legal age for tobacco purchase in North Carolina as 18. A federal rule change in effect Dec. 20 raised the tobacco buying age to 21.