Young adults and e-cigarettes: a qualitative exploration of awareness, experience and attitudes

Findings from qualitative research into young adults’ awareness and experiences of, and attitudes towards, e-cigarettes in Scotland, in 2015-16.

9 Young adults as consumers of e-cigarettes

9.1 Chapter 5 noted that cost was an important motivator and perceived benefit for young adults who used e-cigarettes regularly, either exclusively or in combination with tobacco cigarettes. This chapter looks in more detail at the knowledge and attitudes of young adults relating to cost issues. It covers topics such as the relative cost of e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes, long-term and short-term costs, and the links between cost and quality. The second part of the chapter looks at the purchasing of e-cigarettes; where young adults buy their e-cigarettes, any barriers encountered in making purchases, and perceptions of the availability of e-cigarettes.

The cost of e-cigarettes

9.2 Participants were aware of the wide price range for e-cigarettes - ranging from a pound or two for a 'cigalike' e-cigarette bought in a bargain store to a couple of hundred pounds for a 'mod' device bought from a specialist retailer. Discussion prompted by the photographs shown to the groups indicated that participants could generally recognise low cost and high cost devices. As discussed in Chapter 4, participants were aware that the more expensive devices incorporated features such as bigger batteries and the facility to vary the power and air flow and thus the 'smoke' produced. Less commonly, participants (largely non-smokers and non-vapers) were unclear about why one device might cost so much more than another.

9.3 In general, vapers had started on a cheap device - sometimes a disposable cigalike - and had then progressed to a more expensive and better quality one. Those using the more expensive mod type of e-cigarette were often those who might be classed as 'enthusiasts'.

The relative cost of e-cigarettes and cigarettes

9.4 By and large participants agreed that using e-cigarettes was cheaper than smoking tobacco cigarettes - this was seen as one of their main advantages. Participants contrasted costs of between £20 and £40 a month for e-cigarettes and costs of £200 or more a month for tobacco cigarettes. The lower cost compared to tobacco cigarettes was said to be part of the 'pitch' used by those selling e-cigarettes.

9.5 Participants - particularly those in older age groups - agreed that this was a factor in trying e-cigarettes and in continuing to use them. Even those who did not see cost as a key reason for using e-cigarettes, nevertheless appreciated the money they saved as a 'bonus'. Participants talked about the significant savings that they, or people they knew, had made as a result of switching wholly or partly to e-cigarettes.

9.6 However, not everyone was convinced that the case for saving money through switching to e-cigarettes was so clear cut. There was a view that the potential savings were influenced by the extent to which people vaped. Some suggested that the fact that e-cigarettes were used 'constantly' had cost implications; others highlighted that moving on to better quality devices and liquids involved additional expense. One enthusiast explained the cost implications of having upgraded his device:

'There's only one thing that I really wish somebody had told me when I bought my box mod, and it's how much vape the big ones go through. They really guzzle through it, and it can get really expensive if you're buying nice liquid and you really enjoy the liquid so you use it over and over again.' ( FG6, Male, vaping group, aged 16-21, in employment)

He went on to say that he wished he had also kept his older less sophisticated e-cigarette which was cheaper to 'run' because it used less liquid.

9.7 Even though participants generally thought that cost was a factor in encouraging people to switch to e-cigarettes, this was not, in itself, always enough to persuade people to stop smoking tobacco cigarettes. One participant explained her feelings on this issue as follows:

'It is a huge, huge saving. I actually get really angry with myself for not being able to quit smoking and go onto vaping because it is just, like, such a massive saving... It's really annoyed me that I can't [switch to e-cigarettes]… but it's so much easier said than done. You can't say, "Oh, I would save £200 a month, I'm going to stop tomorrow", and then it comes to it and you're like, "But it's only £200 a month, it's fine, I'll manage, I'll squeeze by and I'll scrape and I'll get money from somewhere so that I can smoke", which is just a nightmare. I really wish I could stop.' ( FG6, Female, vaping group, aged 16-21, in employment)

Long-term and short-term costs

9.8 In discussing the cost advantages of e-cigarettes, participants in all groups acknowledged the short-term up-front costs involved in purchasing a refillable e-cigarette device. In most cases, however, they understood that savings would be achieved over the longer term. The up-front costs were, though, a potential barrier to using e-cigarettes, particularly for those participants in the younger age groups and those not in employment, i.e. those most likely to be on limited budgets. As one participant explained, it was 'easier to go into the shop and spend £3 or £4 a day on buying 10 fags' than to find the money for a one-off payment for an e-cigarette device, which he suggested might cost around £80.

9.9 Such participants also noted the advantages of being able to buy 'single' cigarettes, beg cigarettes from friends, or roll their own when they were short of money - all cheaper, 'stop-gap' options which were not available in the context of using e-cigarettes.

Price vs quality

9.10 Participants frequently expressed the view that 'you get what you pay for', i.e. that price was linked with product quality, for both e-cigarettes and liquids - participants used terms such as 'high end' and 'up-market' when talking about more expensive products. Such views were particularly common among older individuals and those using e-cigarettes on a more regular basis. These participants had greater experience of using more sophisticated devices and more expensive liquids, and could thus make comparisons with cheaper products.

9.11 Participants often reported poor experiences which they attributed to using cheap devices and cheap liquids. Cheap e-cigarettes were described as flimsy, and prone to breaking, leaking or clogging up. Cheap liquids were associated with harsh tastes and, in some cases, injuries such as blistering in the throat and mouth.

9.12 Regular e-cigarette users also suggested that the quality of the vaping experience was enhanced by using a more expensive device. Some suggested that their enjoyment of vaping had increased when they moved onto using a more sophisticated device or more expensive liquids. This was attributed to factors such as improved flavours, greater control over the vapour production and, in some cases, an experience that was closer to smoking tobacco. Others suggested that those who experimented with cheap devices or cheap liquids were less likely to continue vaping because of the poorer vaping experience.

9.13 E-cigarette users often gave first-hand examples of positive and negative experiences linked to high cost and low cost products. However, there was also a generally accepted view that price could be regarded as an indicator of quality, and an associated wariness with regard to cheap devices or liquids. One participant stated, 'If you are going to buy a cheap version of anything, like anything in life… it's obviously not going to be good for you'. Participants often said they did not 'trust' cheap devices and liquids. Concern about the ingredients of e-liquids and the electrical safety of e-cigarettes, and a lack of product regulation were all noted as factors which contributed to this lack of trust.

Purchasing e-cigarettes

9.14 The research explored where young adults who used e-cigarettes bought their devices and liquids. Those with experience of using e-cigarettes reported purchasing their devices from a range of high street and online retailers. High street retailers included: newsagents, corner shops and convenience stores, bargain stores, supermarkets, stalls in shopping centres and on the street, as well as specialist e-cigarette shops. Less commonly, participants had purchased e-cigarettes in 'hippy' or 'legal high' shops and nightclubs. Online retailers included sites such as Amazon and eBay as well as specialist e-cigarette sites.

9.15 Non-specialist retailers were most likely to be used by younger, less regular vapers, while specialist retailers were most likely to be used by older more regular vapers. Vaping enthusiasts were particularly likely to use specialist retailers (high street and online); they also reported buying liquids from online retailers based outside the UK.

Views relating to purchasing on the high street

9.16 Participants in focus groups comprised of smokers and vapers were very aware of specialist e-cigarette shops in their local areas, and they often referred to them by name. These shops were said to have proliferated in the previous couple of years to the point that there was said to be 'one on every street' (it should, however, be noted that the fieldwork for this project was carried out in three wholly urban areas). Not surprisingly, awareness was lower among non-smokers - there was little discussion about places where e-cigarettes might be bought, and even some surprise at the existence of dedicated e-cigarette shops.

9.17 Those using e-cigarettes often valued the service provided by specialist shops. Such retailers were associated with quality products - they were referred to as 'proper branded shops' and 'premium' shops, and the staff were reported to be helpful and knowledgeable. For some, visiting the shops themselves was an attraction. One participant described a 'pretty cool shop… where you can go in and make a day of it… you can try all the different liquids'.

9.18 Non-specialist retailers were valued for convenience, but tended to be associated with lower quality products, and less knowledgeable staff.

9.19 Some participants suggested that the growth in the number of high street retailers selling e-cigarettes was a factor which influenced behaviour. One smoker-vaper contrasted the current situation with that of a few years ago when he had first started using e-cigarettes:

'… it was easier [then] to go and buy fags than buy the replacement parts! So that's how it's… and then at that time it was when it had first started, so there were only a few shops, there wasn't as many shops as there are now. There was only certain places. Now every second shop you can get the stuff.' ( FG5, Male, smoking group, aged 19-25, in employment)

9.20 In another group two e-cigarette enthusiasts agreed that they were buying and using more e-liquids because the increasing number of specialist shops on the high street offering a wide range of different flavours made it easy to do so.

Views relating to purchasing online

9.21 Those buying online used specialist and non-specialist sites. Those using non-specialist sites were still keen to discriminate between legitimate and 'dodgy' suppliers.

9.22 Confidence was an issue for people in deciding to buy online. Some were uncertain about the origins and quality of products sold online or felt they did not have the basic knowledge to allow them to make informed choices. Such participants preferred buying face-to-face in a high street shop. Regular e-cigarette users with good knowledge levels were often more enthusiastic about buying online and saw this as a way of accessing a wider range of high quality products, including those not available from UK-based suppliers.

Retailers and suppliers as sources of information

9.23 With regard to all types of retailers and suppliers, some participants voiced a degree of scepticism about the extent to which they could be trusted to provide unbiased information. (See Chapter 10 for further exploration of information sources.)

Marketing of e-cigarettes

9.24 This study did not specifically explore the issue of e-cigarette marketing. However, participants sometimes raised the topic spontaneously. Participants had encountered a range of marketing and promotional techniques used to encourage the use of e-cigarettes. These included:

  • Adverts designed to promote e-cigarette use as a 'life-style' choice
  • The opportunity to 'try before you buy' (for both devices and flavoured liquids) in shops and at stalls
  • Counter displays encouraging impulse buys
  • A promotional bus giving out free e-cigarettes
  • The sale of e-cigarettes in nightclubs - perceived as a way of encouraging people to try e-cigarettes in an environment where they may have been drinking
  • Discounts for staff who worked in shopping centres which hosted stalls.

9.25 Some also commented on the perceived role (and power) of the tobacco companies, and put forward two differing viewpoints as to how they could influence the market: (i) that tobacco companies were diversifying into e-cigarettes to protect their businesses as people's habits changed, and would use their power to promote the product and oppose regulation; and (ii) that research emphasising the dangers of e-cigarettes had been funded by the tobacco companies to discourage people from switching products.


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