Parents: Be on the Lookout for E-Cigarettes Marketed to Kids

Young girl vaping with an e-cigarette

NicolasMcComber / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The FDA sent warning letters to five different companies accusing them of unauthorized marketing of e-cigarette products.
  • These products are being made to look like toys, food, or include cartoon characters, potentially intending to market to young people.
  • Parents should keep an eye out for vaping products that could be mistaken for toys at quick glance.

Vaping is both addictive and harmful to your health, so of course, you don't want your kids to pick up the habit. Once advertised as a method to quit smoking, some e-cigarettes are now being designed to appeal to children. These products may look like glow sticks, popsicles, or toys, and feature cartoon characters like Minions or The Simpsons.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) believes 15 e-cigarette products on the market are being promoted to kids, and they recently sent warning letters to the companies that produce them.

Federal law prohibits these companies from marketing e-cigarettes in such a way. On top of that, you have to be 21 years old to buy them, so targeting kids is simply illegal, not to mention unethical. "It is highly doubtful that these products are being marketed to adults," says Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD, a pediatrician and medical consultant at Mom Loves Best.

There are ways to protect your kids from the dangers of vaping, as long as you know what to look out for.

FDA Warns E-Cigarette Makers

The FDA is accusing five companies of marketing their e-cigarette products to children, in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act. The FD&C Act requires companies to submit a pre-market application before selling, to ensure that the products are being promoted responsibly. None of the companies that received letters submitted a pre-market application for any of the products in question.

“The FDA is committed to keeping tobacco products out of the hands of our nation’s youth,” says Brian King, PhD, MPH, the director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products in a statement. “The agency will continue to hold companies accountable for illegally selling e-cigarettes, particularly those that shamelessly target youth.” 

The FDA's warning letters are to inform the companies they do not have permission to sell the 15 identified products. They must correct the violation of blatantly trying to appeal to children before they can continue to sell them.

"Children are naturally drawn to colorful packaging and cartoon characters and are more likely to use products that contain these types of imagery," says Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, FACEP, FUHM, FACMT, a medical toxicology physician and director at National Capital Poison Center. "In addition, children may be more likely to lick or taste the contents of these products due to their appealing appearance."

Here are some examples of the products as highlighted by the FDA:

E-cigarette made to look like a popsicle

Food and Drug Administration

E-cigarette with Minions cartoon

Food and Drug Administration

E-cigarette carton made to look like a Nintendo Gameboy

Food and Drug Administration

These products are designed to be appealing to children, but they also may be easier for kids to hide. "Parents may not be aware that their teen is using a vape pen or box unless they examine the vape pen or cartridges more carefully," says Dr. Poinsett.

  • If you see e-cigarettes being sold to look like toys, food, or in an otherwise kid-targeted way, speak out. Report suspected violations to the FDA by using their Safety Reporting Portal.

Marketing E-Cigarettes to Young People

Children are highly susceptible to media and advertisements, in part because they don't always know enough to be suspicious about a company's motives. Tweens and teens also have a pack mentality that encourages them to try and fit in with their peers.

Marketing e-cigarettes in ways that make them more appealing to teens will certainly increase the number of kids who try them. Many of these kids will try it more than once and could become addicted.

"The designs of these products are an utterly flagrant attempt to target kids,” says Dr. King in a statement. “It’s a hard sell to suggest that adults using e-cigarettes with the goal of quitting smoking need a cartoon character emblazoned across the front of the product in order to do so successfully.”

There is also the issue of vaping products hiding in plain sight if they look like food or a toy, for example. The longer it takes for you to discover that your child is vaping, the more likely they are to become addicted.

What Should Parents Look Out For?

If you are concerned out vaping, know which products to look out for. "Many vaping devices do not look like traditional cigarettes; instead, they are sleek, colorful, and may resemble flash drives or other innocuous objects," notes Johnson-Arbor. "Parents who find unexpected flash drives, pens, or other devices in the home may wish to explore whether these devices are actually vaping tools."

Perhaps more importantly, look out for signs that your child could be vaping. "Signs that you child could be using e-cigarettes include a new cough or wheeze, irritability, or drinking more water than usual," says Dr. Poinsett. Also take note if your child seems to spend more time by themselves or seems to be hiding something.

Try to keep the lines of communication open between you and your teen, and let them know that they can come to you if they need help. If your teens feels like they can trust you, they may come to you themselves if they started vaping and now they don't feel they can stop.

What This Means for You

Unfortunately, there are companies out there that may not care about children's well-being as much as they care about selling their products. The FDA is trying to crack down on e-cigarette companies that target youth, but they can't necessarily find them all. Keep an eye out for these products and look out for signs that your child might be vaping. Most importantly, let your teen know that they can come to you if they need help.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Food and Drug Administration. FDA Warns Firms for Selling Illegal E-cigarettes That Look Like Toys, Food, and Cartoon Characters.

  2. American Lung Association. The Impact of E-Cigarettes on the Lung.

  3. Food and Drug Administration. Unauthorized E-Cigarettes That Appeal to Youth.

  4. Labrecque LI, Patrick VM, Milne GR. The marketers’ prismatic palette: a review of color research and future directions: the marketers’ prismatic palette. Psychol Mark. 2013;30(2):187-202. doi:10.1002/mar.20597

  5. Sussman S, Pokhrel P, Ashmore RD, Brown BB. Adolescent peer group identification and characteristics: A review of the literatureAddictive Behaviors. 2007;32(8):1602-1627. doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2006.11.018

By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.