From smoker to vaper: A social identity model of how e-cigarettes facilitate smoking cessation and engagement in health behaviours

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Psychology


The uptake of e-cigarettes has risen exponentially , from 700,000 users in 2012 to 2.9 million in 2017. Smoking cessation is cited as the primary reason for e-cigarette use (commonly known as 'vaping'): an estimated 16,000-22,000 people quit through vaping each year in England , and public health bodies, including PHE, are increasingly endorsing e-cigarettes as an effective cessation tool , amid claims that vaping is a healthier alternative to smoking. Switching from smoking to vaping involves a shift in an individual's social identity (i.e., sense of self as defined by the social groups to which he/she belongs), away from 'smoker' towards a new, healthier 'vaper' identity. Working collaboratively with PHE, this project aims to add to the evidence base of public consensus and investigate how social identity transitions impact vapers by developing a novel vaper identity scale, and by exploring how it impacts other health-related outcomes.

According to the identity-based motivation model, health behaviours are intertwined with social identities: if healthy behaviours are seen as central to group membership (i.e., are normative for that group), healthy behaviours will follow (and vice versa). Evidence for this has been found across a number of health behaviours, including binge-drinking and sun protection behaviours. However, this effect of group norms is enhanced the more that individuals identify with the group. Recent research at the University of Exeter, including previous work by the student in her undergraduate and MSc dissertations, suggests that similar processes might operate for vaper social identity. Thus, building upon both the student's emerging expertise and the work of the supervisors, and drawing upon the expertise of collaborators in PHE to understand the needs of relevant stakeholders, this project will investigate the relationships among vaper identity, vaper group norms, strength of identification, and health-behaviour engagement, and explore how these change from initial vaping experience over a period time.

The proposed project's collaboration with PHE will facilitate networking with Local Authorities and other relevant stakeholders, enabling the recruitment of new vapers - a group understudied in the vaping literature. This collaboration will also facilitate the recruitment of vapers outside online vaping forums (cf. the majority of past research), ensuring a more heterogeneous and representative sample, improving both the validity and generalisability of the results. The project will use longitudinal designs, as well as both qualitative and quantitative methods, to explore vaper social identity and the relationships between patterns and strength of vaper social identification and key health outcomes. A key outcome of this project will be the development of a bespoke measure of social identification for vapers, the Vaping Identity Scale (VIS), based on a five-factor model of in-group identification (group-level self-definition and self-investment ). The VIS will build upon my current Masters project, which reconceptualises vaping identity as existing on a 'smoker/non-smoker' continuum, by analysing the relationships among strength of vaper identification, vaper group norms, and health outcomes.

Three workstreams are proposed. Stream 1 will investigate qualitatively how individuals experience the transition from smoker to vaper identity when they start vaping, informing the content and development of the VIS (N=75). Stream 2 will investigate the differences between new and established vapers (vaping for 1+ years) in terms of patterns and strength of social identification (N=350). Stream 3 represents the longitudinal aspect of the project: Studies 1 and 2 will be repeated 12 months after Time 1.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2073301 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2018 31/03/2023 Gina Collins