#VaperTracker - #eCigarette Use is Being Monitored on #Twitter

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Vaping is taking off in a huge way, with millions of people worldwide taking it up. Some are using it as a means to quit smoking, others are simply using it as a counterpart to it, but the numbers don't lie. In the UK, there are currently 2.2 million people vaping, which, while still significantly less than regular smokers (who comprise 19% of the adult population), is nothing to scoff at.

Big tobacco companies are scrambling to get in on the market, and dedicated shops for e-cigarettes are popping up everywhere, with hundreds of different kinds on the market, you can even get an official Wu-Tang Clan one. Don't, people will laugh at you, I say that even as a long time fan of their music.

The problem is, we simply do not know how harmful vaping is yet, nowhere near enough time has passed to demonstrate what long term damage it causes. Sure, there's far less nicotine in them than cigarettes, relatively speaking, and no tar, but the chemicals used to make the oil still have potentially harmful properties, and they have been known to explode in people's pockets from time to time.

In the UK, where you can actually use them is something of a grey area, there's no legal clause to ban them indoors, but some establishments do. In France, they're already banned in enclosed work spaces, public transport and areas with children, but they're now looking to extend that to restaurants, cafes and nightclubs.

The main reason France have been so tough on them is not necessarily because of the health risk, but because they can act as a 'gateway' to smoking, and because the marketing of them isn't yet restricted. They can be freely advertised, and some are concerned that they're being marketed to children. That's where Twitter comes in. Researchers at New York University's School of Medicine have started tracking vape-related key words on Twitter, in a bid to ascertain why people are using them, how they're being marketed and who to.

Hopefully, through this study, the researchers can better figure out what attracts people to vaping, whether it is largely a measure to quit smoking, or if it's about the flavours and different designs available, which would by extension suggest that they're being angled towards a younger demographic. The age range of people talking about vaping will also be clarified by the study.

Why Twitter? It's simple: vaping is a very new type of product, and social media plays a big role in its marketing. All the big brands have active Twitter pages and tens of thousands of followers, and they are the ones whose tweets are being most closely scrutinised. By extension, the tactics of the bigger brands can be explored, seeing which customer tweets they're most responsive to, and in what way.

Even generally speaking though, social media studies can be implemented more quickly and widely than standard surveys, since they require no direct input from the people in the sample pool, all the necessary information is already there, it just needs to be analysed and collated.

The problem with this, in terms of vaping, is that around 80% of all the tweets about it are spam, conjured up by bot accounts. That, to me, says something rather unsettling in and of itself, if a product which is supposedly designed to alleviate an addiction is being peddled in such a broad, disingenuous way. The key is brushing past all of that, and finding the data that can really benefit the development of health policies.

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