Just like Netflix and Jennifer Lawrence, the adoration for electronic cigarettes is thought to have skyrocketed over the past few years — and now there’s proof.

A new study published Thursday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the number of Google searches related to e-cigarettes has taken a sharp incline since 2010. Whereas nationally there were around 1.5 million Google searches in 2010, 2014 saw 8.5 million searches. Even the way we talk about them is beginning to change, with web browsers frequently turning to variations of “vaping” over “e-cigarettes” to describe the wide range of products collectively referred to as electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) by the researchers. By 2014, searches for “vaping” eclipsed the latter.

'A National Phenomena'

“ENDS are growing in popularity and this growth is accelerating,” lead author Dr. John W. Ayers of San Diego State University told Medical Daily. And though the largest volume of searches may have been found along coastal states like California, Ayers warns we shouldn’t place too much stock into that. “ENDS are popular in almost every state. ENDS aren't a ‘California’ or ‘coastal’ phenomena. ENDS are a national phenomena.”

Ayers’ team took to Google Trends to remedy a long-known about information gap we’ve had when it comes to ENDS.

“Traditional public health surveillance is stuck behind the eight ball. Surveys are both too costly and delayed to provide meaningful insights into real-time trends for ENDS popularity. As a result, we do not have any reliable estimate for state-by-state popularity of ENDS.” he said, adding that even when people take surveys, they might be disinclined to reveal their real desires if they fear being shamed for it, such as with cigarette use. “Search query surveillance, in contrast, is free and available in near real-time. Moreover, we can see precisely what the population is thinking and when they're thinking it based on the content of their queries.”

Such queries included “ecigs,” “e-cigs,” and “vapers.” Additionally, they made sure to exclude any searches related to marijuana (“pot” and “weed”) to avoid contaminating their results.  

Aside from the broader picture, the researchers came across another disturbing discovery: The proportion of searches also related to shopping dwarfed those concerning health risks or the desire to quit tobacco smoking, an often touted though rarely substantiated benefit of switching to e-cigarettes. And the divide is only getting larger. In 2013, 6 percent of vape-related searches involved terms like “buy” and “store”; in 2014, that jumped up to 11 percent, encompassing nearly a million searches in total. Meanwhile, health-related searches dropped from 3 to 2 percent during the same time period.

“Even though many claim that people seek ENDS for smoking cessation, when searching in the privacy of their home there are few searches indicative of seeking ENDS for smoking cessation,” Ayers reiterated. “Searches on the health risks of ENDS are [also] very rare and declining.” That’s particularly concerning since there’s only been more and more recent research indicating these products aren’t safe as commonly thought and might even promote tobacco smoking, especially among the young.

Lastly, their findings suggest that public health advocates and lawmakers alike may need to switch up their tactics if they hope to effectively combat vaping. “ENDS search interest was independent of existing tobacco-control policies, like cigarette taxes or clean indoor air laws,” Ayers explained. “The policies we have now aren't working and we need ENDS focused policies ASAP.”

Though we can’t yet tell how much more popular vaping became on Google last year, Ayers and his team estimate searches would have likely increased 62 percent over 2014.

Source: Ayers J, Althouse B, Allem J-P, et al. Revisiting the Rise of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems Using Search Query Surveillance. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2016.