What online communities can tell us about electronic cigarettes and hookah use: A study using text mining and visualization techniques

Annie T. Chen, Shu Hong Zhu, Mike Conway

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


Background: The rise in popularity of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) and hookah over recent years has been accompanied by some confusion and uncertainty regarding the development of an appropriate regulatory response towards these emerging products. Mining online discussion content can lead to insights into people's experiences, which can in turn further our knowledge of how to address potential health implications. In this work, we take a novel approach to understanding the use and appeal of these emerging products by applying text mining techniques to compare consumer experiences across discussion forums. Objective: This study examined content from the websites Vapor Talk, Hookah Forum, and Reddit to understand people's experiences with different tobacco products. Our investigation involves three parts. First, we identified contextual factors that inform our understanding of tobacco use behaviors, such as setting, time, social relationships, and sensory experience, and compared the forums to identify the ones where content on these factors is most common. Second, we compared how the tobacco use experience differs with combustible cigarettes and e-cigarettes. Third, we investigated differences between e-cigarette and hookah use. Methods: In the first part of our study, we employed a lexicon-based extraction approach to estimate prevalence of contextual factors, and then we generated a heat map based on these estimates to compare the forums. In the second and third parts of the study, we employed a text mining technique called topic modeling to identify important topics and then developed a visualization, Topic Bars, to compare topic coverage across forums. Results: In the first part of the study, we identified two forums, Vapor Talk Health & Safety and the Stopsmoking subreddit, where discussion concerning contextual factors was particularly common. The second part showed that the discussion in Vapor Talk Health & Safety focused on symptoms and comparisons of combustible cigarettes and e-cigarettes, and the Stopsmoking subreddit focused on psychological aspects of quitting. Last, we examined the discussion content on Vapor Talk and Hookah Forum. Prominent topics included equipment, technique, experiential elements of use, and the buying and selling of equipment. Conclusions: This study has three main contributions. Discussion forums differ in the extent to which their content may help us understand behaviors with potential health implications. Identifying dimensions of interest and using a heat map visualization to compare across forums can be helpful for identifying forums with the greatest density of health information. Additionally, our work has shown that the quitting experience can potentially be very different depending on whether or not e-cigarettes are used. Finally, e-cigarette and hookah forums are similar in that members represent a "hobbyist culture" that actively engages in information exchange. These differences have important implications for both tobacco regulation and smoking cessation intervention design.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e220
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Cigarettes
  • Electronic cigarettes
  • Hookah smoking
  • Social media
  • Text mining
  • Tobacco products


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