New York’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) enlisted Zebra Strategies to test e-cigarette prevention campaigns targeted at teenage New Yorkers. We aimed to understand teenagers’ vaping habits, what factors motivate them to begin vaping, and what would deter them from starting or continuing to vape.
We conducted four focus groups, consisting of teenagers ages 13-18, living within the five boroughs. These groups were separated by age group (13-15 and 16-18) and how favorably or unfavorably the participants viewed vaping. A detailed discussion surrounding participants’ vaping habits, and their knowledge of vaping devices and the associated health risks, was followed by testing five e-cigarette prevention campaigns. We learned that vapes are easily obtainable for teenagers, with age restrictions easy to get around. While participants were vaguely aware that vapes aren’t good for them, their knowledge often didn’t go beyond knowing that nicotine is addictive. Vaping is incredibly widespread and popular – participants estimated more than half of the people at their school vaped, with many saying people began in middle school. While participants resisted the idea that peer pressure is a factor, the most common reason to try vaping was “to be cool” or because they saw their friends using them.
We learned campaigns needed to remind teenagers of the anti-smoking campaigns from their childhoods, which participants all cited as successful deterrents. In October 2019, DOH launched the “Don’t Get Hooked” campaign on digital platforms in Spanish and English. A favorite amongst participants, “Don’t Get Hooked” was eye-catching and relatable, drawing participants’ attention to how vaping can “take over your life.” This approach resulted in a memorable campaign that shocks viewers out of complacency or advocacy. The products themselves also needed to be more difficult to obtain, and the associated health risks need to be more widely publicized. Since receiving Zebra Strategies’s report, DOH has issued a press release, sounding the alarm on e-cigarette use among NYC teenagers, and Governor Cuomo has announced an emergency executive action to ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. This research, combined with ad testing, provided insight on how to create a campaign that accurately and effectively informs teenage New Yorkers about the risks of vaping, persuades them to care and motivates them to change their behavior.