NIH To Surveille Social Media Of E-Cig Users

Vape Study
"Do you even Vape, bro?" - NIH Researcher

In a bid to understand what is driving the use of tobacco “cessation products,” the National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiated a social surveillance project in conjunction with the University of Kentucky.

In collaboration with the University of Kentucky, the NIH has released $199,665 to fund a comprehensive social media surveillance campaign. The money will be spent on a holistic analysis of hashtags and connection used in tweets about e-cigarettes, and is expected to provide valuable insights that will help the government control the use of “cessation products.”

As evidenced by this massive study, the federal government is worried that, even though “electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) have emerged as the main smoke-free alternative to regular cigarettes over the past few years, there  are concerns surrounding the, “debate about their long-term health effects and their suitability for smoking cessation.”

While a number of products fall under the label of “cessation products”, e-cigarettes are the obvious target of this study because of their widespread usage and popularity. Apart from helping researchers and healthcare agencies in documenting the usage trends and general opinion, the study will also establish the usage of social media as a research and information extraction platform. The surveillance will provide insights that can later be used to engineer the views of e-cig users.

The grant elaborates the objectives and goals by stating, “The overarching goal is to create new affordances for researchers and health agencies to leverage online social media platforms for knowing and reaching their audience in effective ways.”

For now, the study will be limited to Twitter and Reddit users, analyzing “#retweets” and “#replies” of e-cigarettes related tweets sent between July 2016 and June 2017. Highlighting why Twitter and Reddit were chosen as the focused social media platforms for the study, the grant states, “Twitter has become the favorite network for teenagers and young adults owing to the short message size and associated ease of use on smart phones.”

The findings of the research are expected to help Food and Drug Administration add weight to their anti-electronic cigarette messages and make it viral across the internet. “For an emerging product like e-cigarettes, the asymmetric follower-friend connections, and hashtag functionality in Twitter offer a convenient way to propagate information and facilitate discussion,” states the grant.

The surveillance project started on August 10 and will take several months before a well-rounded report is presented to the concerned health agencies including the FDA.