NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Local government’s offensive against vaping has expanded in the months since New Hanover County leaders approved a vaping and smoking prohibition in county-owned areas and certain other public spaces.
A multi-faceted advertisement campaign designed to curb the use of e-cigs — an alternative to cigarettes detested by health officials due to its gripping popularity among minors — is one cornerstone of the county’s approach. The county passed restrictions last November that went into effect in February.
A social media campaign that started in February 2021 utilizes geofencing, meaning advertisements are pinged to mobile devices of people who physically traverse into a virtual boundary — in this case, places like shopping centers and county parks.
New Hanover County paid for the anti-vaping advertisements with grant money from an N.C. Department of Health and Human Services program called “Healthy Communities.” Money from the program goes to local health departments, with the goal of reducing “the burden of chronic disease and injury in North Carolina,” which includes tobacco and e-cig use. According to the CDC, nicotine addiction often emerges in adolescence, and a 2016 Surgeon General report asserted emitted e-cig aerosol “can contain additional toxins, making it less safe than clean air.”
Of the 83 total health departments that received the grant money last year, 38 used funds for meeting media messaging campaigns designed to combat smoking and vaping, according to the most recent available NCDHHS data.
The New Hanover Health and Human Services Board advocated for even harsher restrictions starting in October 2019. Then-health director Phillip Tarte was a driving force behind the policy. He was fired at the end of January; in his termination letter, Tarte was accused of being solely dedicated to the smoking and vaping ordinance even as the novel coronavirus began to emerge on the East Coast last year.
The county’s vendor, Adbridge Consulting, charged $3,000 for the first three months of the campaign. An additional $3,000 extension was inked to cover more ads in April and May, specifically targeted to travelers into the Wilmington area.
Sponsored posts like this one have been appearing on the mobile devices of individuals who enter a “geofence.” Companies can use digital location-telling data to target content specifically to individuals who enter such areas. (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County)
Internet-users who Google vacation rentals, boat rentals or similar services in the county have been targeted with sponsored posts from New Hanover County Public Health, bearing the message that the new rule “prohibits smoking and vaping in public places like restaurants, bars and entertainment venues, and in county, city, and town buildings, grounds, and vehicles.”
The original geofenced ads covered places like The Pointe movie theater, Los Portales Supermarket, the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher, Independence Mall and Mayfaire Town Center.
Starting in April, dozens of more locations were added, like popular beach bars, a range of hotels, the public restrooms in Kure Beach, and more than 10 beach accesses on Wrightsville Beach.
Also with NCDHHS grant money, the county hired Cumulus Media to target ads linking to rethinkvape.org, an anti-vaping organization, on the feeds of individuals browsing content that includes specific keywords like “vape,” “Juul,” “ecig” and “vape juice,” according to a county spokesperson.
Adbridge utilized keyword search in its anti-vaping ads as well. According to a county spokesperson, as of April 30, Adbridge’s campaign resulted in 79,353 views through social media, 36,431 views through keyword retargeting and 185,438 views through geofencing.
According to emails obtained in a public records request, personal data is not being collected as part of these advertising operations.
The Cumulus campaign originally ran from Sept. 11, 2019 to May 31, 2020, before the vaping restrictions were put on the books. It garnered 397,082 views, according to a county spokesperson. It was relaunched last August and conducted through the end of May for the price of $500 per month. In that span, the ads received 275,895 views.
This map shows the locations were geofences were installed after the smoking and vaping restrictions went into effect. In April, the list was expanded to include tourist destinations, hotels and more. (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County)