Background: Marketing and use of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) and other electronic nicotine delivery devices have increased exponentially in recent years fueled, in part, by marketing and word-of-mouth communications via social media platforms, such as Twitter.
Objective: This study examines Twitter posts about e-cigarettes between 2008 and 2013 to gain insights into (1) marketing trends for selling and promoting e-cigarettes and (2) locations where people use e-cigarettes.
Methods: We used keywords to gather tweets about e-cigarettes between July 1, 2008 and February 28, 2013. A randomly selected subset of tweets was manually coded as advertising (eg, marketing, advertising, sales, promotion) or nonadvertising (eg, individual users, consumers), and classification algorithms were trained to code the remaining data into these 2 categories. A combination of manual coding and natural language processing methods was used to indicate locations where people used e-cigarettes. Additional metadata were used to generate insights about users who tweeted most frequently about e-cigarettes.
Results: We identified approximately 1.7 million tweets about e-cigarettes between 2008 and 2013, with the majority of these tweets being advertising (93.43%, 1,559,508/1,669,123). Tweets about e-cigarettes increased more than tenfold between 2009 and 2010, suggesting a rapid increase in the popularity of e-cigarettes and marketing efforts. The Twitter handles tweeting most frequently about e-cigarettes were a mixture of e-cigarette brands, affiliate marketers, and resellers of e-cigarette products. Of the 471 e-cigarette tweets mentioning a specific place, most mentioned e-cigarette use in class (39.1%, 184/471) followed by home/room/bed (12.5%, 59/471), school (12.1%, 57/471), in public (8.7%, 41/471), the bathroom (5.7%, 27/471), and at work (4.5%, 21/471).
Conclusions: Twitter is being used to promote e-cigarettes by different types of entities and the online marketplace is more diverse than offline product offerings and advertising strategies. E-cigarettes are also being used in public places, such as schools, underscoring the need for education and enforcement of policies banning e-cigarette use in public places. Twitter data can provide new insights on e-cigarettes to help inform future research, regulations, surveillance, and enforcement efforts.
Keywords: electronic cigarettes; marketing; natural language processing; social media; tobacco.