Tobacco companies have paid young people with large numbers of social media followers to post photos of themselves posing with or using popular tobacco and e-cigarette brands.

Big tobacco uses social media to spread cancer

2 March 2021
Associate Professor, The University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine and Health

Becky Freeman

Associate Professor, The University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine and Health

Many of us have been spending a lot more time on our devices over the past year. When in-person contact is being kept to a minimum, engaging with screens can easily fill an entire day. Between scrolling through social media posts, attending Zoom calls, refreshing news pages and ordering food delivery, we’re also being exposed to a lot of advertising. Some of this advertising might be quite useful, or even helpful. For example, many governments around the globe have deployed vital COVID-19 communications campaigns, with important advice about hand washing, mask wearing and staying home when feeling sick. But much of this advertising is for products that make us sick, including tobacco.

The tobacco industry has a long history of exploiting loopholes in laws that are meant to limit exposure to harmful advertising and promotions. Regulators have struggled to keep pace with the change in the digital media landscape and Big Tobacco, known for its innovative advertising, has deftly filled this regulatory void by operating accounts across popular social media platforms and engaging influencers to promote its deadly products. Philip Morris International, for example, runs a Facebook page with over 1.3 million followers, which it uses to undermine tobacco laws and a Twitter account that pushes messages about its supposed corporate social responsibility efforts. These corporate promotion campaigns frame tobacco companies as pioneering public health partners, who are socially responsible, all while pushing novel tobacco products as alternatives to cigarettes.

Globally, tobacco companies have paid young people with large numbers of social media followers to post photos of themselves posing with or using popular tobacco and e-cigarette brands. These influencers often do not transparently declare that they been compensated by tobacco companies nor do they identify their posts as advertising. While this form of advertising is decidedly modern, it is deeply reminiscent of old-school techniques, like when glamorous Hollywood celebrities were used to make smoking appear “cool” and sophisticated. Embedding tobacco use imagery so seamlessly within young people’s social media feeds normalises use. It suggests that these deadly and addictive products are just like any other product that is being targeted at young people. 

Social media companies make money by ensuring users scroll through their newsfeeds as often as possible, for as long as possible, so that they are exposed to as much advertising as possible. Therefore, it’s in the interest of social media companies to make it seem like a near-impossible task to regulate the content on its sites. Currently, some social media companies claim to effectively self-regulate by adopting a policy that bans the direct promotion of tobacco and e-cigarette products through sponsored posts and paid ads. But corporate messaging campaigns, influencer posts and unpaid posts escape these weak policies. It is essential that tobacco advertising and sponsorship bans include all forms of online media and hold these platforms to the same standard as traditional media platforms, such as magazines and television.

As new social media platforms will continue to emerge for ever younger users, putting an end to online tobacco and e-cigarette advertising now will prevent future generations from seeing these products as a “normal” part of their everyday media experience. Global cooperation through the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is paramount and will help ensure that social media is not exempt from policies that we know work to prevent cancer.

Becky Freeman is Associate Professor of public health at the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine and Health. Her research interests include tobacco control, food advertising, and how online and social media influence public health. Exposing how commercial determinants negatively impact public health and stall effective policy advances is a common theme in her work.

Last update: 
Tuesday 2 March 2021
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