The reasons people use e-cigarettes are shifting: Fewer people are using them to quit smoking, and more people are using them to boost their social image, a new study finds.
The findings could have important implications for public health, as they could help guide initiatives seeking to discourage e-cigarette use, the researchers said.
Although scientists have previously looked at why people choose to use e-cigarettes, the researchers of the new study noted that the surveys used in past research typically limited the participants' responses. [4 Myths About E-Cigarettes]
For example, surveys may have included a series of yes-or-no questions, or multiple-choice questions, and didn't allow respondents to answer in their own words, the researchers wrote in the study, which was published today (March 1) in the journal PLOS ONE.
"What if we could listen in to what people are naturally saying about e-cigarettes to their friends rather than [to] a surveyor?" lead study author John Ayers, a public health researcher at San Diego State University, said in a statement.
To do so, the researchers turned to Twitter.
In the 2012 to 2015 study, they analyzed more than 3 million public tweets about e-cigarettes. Tweets that were initially included in the study contained words or phrases such as "electronic cigarette," "electronic cig," e-cig," "vape" and others.
These tweets were then narrowed down to only include those referring to using e-cigs; for example, tweets such as "I have an electronic cig and it's helping me quit" were included, but tweets such as "I just saw someone vaping" were excluded.
Finally, the researchers categorized the tweets based on the person's reason for vaping. They ended up with a total of seven major reasons: low cost, flavor choices, safe to use, can use indoors, favorable odor, quitting regular cigarettes and social image.
The tweets from 2012 showed that people's most common reason for vaping was quitting smoking regular cigarettes, according to the study, with 43 percent of tweets citing this as a reason. Social image was the second most common reason, with 21 percent of tweets, and indoor use was third, with 17 percent.
By 2015, however, less than 30 percent of the tweets cited quitting smoking regular cigarettes as a reason for vaping. Rather, social image was the most common reason cited, accounting for 37 percent of the vaping-related tweets. Indoor use also decreased as a reason, dropping down to 12 percent of the tweets, the researchers found.
The researchers noted that their findings were supported by previous research and anecdotal evidence.
For example, the decrease in quitting smoking as a reason for e-cigarette use lined up with a decrease in Google searches for e-cigarettes as a way to quit smoking, according to the study. And the decrease in citing indoor use lined up with the time frame over which a number of cities and states banned e-cig use indoors, they wrote.
At the same time, e-cig marketing has increasingly focused on social image, the researchers wrote. This supports the finding that social image has increased as a reason cited for use, they said.
Originally published on Live Science.