Tobacco company marketers have a long history of infiltrating youth-friendly media and entertainment—the Internet is no exception. The largely unregulated status of the Internet holds much potential as a vehicle for both promoting smoking and advertising tobacco products. One of the first studies (US data from 2004) tracking online exposure to tobacco content showed that adolescents are consistently exposed to tobacco-related content on the Internet through their normal webpage viewing.1 The 2008 US National Cancer Institute [NCI] monograph on the role of the media in promoting and preventing tobacco use highlighted the lack of research in the area of internet-based tobacco advertising and promotion.2 Since the NCI publication, a burgeoning field of research has examined how the Internet is an ideal platform for tobacco companies to pursue their promotional ambitions and to exploit the unprecedented opportunities that interactive online channels provide to marketers.3 The Internet provides a continually evolving range of technologically innovative means for tobacco companies to keep favourable associations with smoking and particular brands in consumers’ minds.
The near ubiquitous use of the Internet also makes it a highly desirable medium for reaching large numbers of consumers. The proportion of Australian households with access to the Internet at home has been steadily climbing since 2004-05 but remained constant between 2014-15 and 2016-17 at 86%.4 For households with children aged under 15 years, 97% had access to the internet compared with 82% of households without children under 15.4 Additionally, households located in major cities were more likely to have internet access at home (88%) than those in remote or very remote parts of Australia (77%). In 2016–17, 87% of Australians aged 15 and over were Internet users (accessed the internet in the last three months). The three most popular online activities were entertainment, social networking and banking—all mentioned by 80% users as reasons for accessing the web.4
Internet use by young people is part of their everyday life, both in and out of school. The 2012 Children's Participation in Cultural and Leisure Activities survey reported that of the 2.8 million children aged 5 to 14 years, 90% used the internet.5 The difference in the participation rates was not statistically significant between children living in major cities (91%) and remote and very remote areas of Australia (88%). In April 2012, 818,500 children aged 5 to 14 years (29%) had a mobile phone. The likelihood of having a mobile phone increased with age, with 2% of children aged between 5 and 8 years having one, increasing to 22% of 9 to 11 year olds and 73% of 12 to 14 year olds.5
Australians spend a significant portion of their time online on social media. The most popular social media channels in Australia include: Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Twitter, and Snapchat. In 2018, the average Australian aged 14-+ spent almost six hours per week on social media. Young women in particular are prolific users of all types of social media. Women aged 14-24 spend nearly five hours more time on social media per week than men aged 14-24. Overall, women spend an average of 391 minutes per week on social media and men 287 minutes per week.6
A content analysis study of pro-tobacco websites revealed that tobacco has a pervasive presence on the Internet, especially on e-commerce sites and sites featuring hobbies, recreation, and ‘fetishes’(p281).7 Only 11% of the sites examined contained health warnings. The pro-tobacco sites frequently associated smoking with ‘glamorous’ and ‘alternative’ lifestyles, and with images of attractive young people. Many of the websites offered interactive site features that are potentially appealing to young people. Australian websites also sell cigarettes.i When originally launched, some of these sites did not post health warnings, nor do they comply with state and territory-based legislation surrounding point-of-sale advertising.
A study that collected data on all online banner/video advertisements appearing in the USA and Canada between 1 April 2012 and 1 April 2013 found that e-cigarette and tobacco industries spent almost $2 million on online product advertisements and this was mostly on two brands: NJOY e-cigarettes and Swedish Snus.8 There was almost no direct advertising of cigarettes. Direct and highly overt online advertising online for cigarettes appears to be fairly well captured under existing tobacco control advertising laws and search engine policies, however there is far more covert depiction and unregulated promotion of both cigarettes and e-cigarettes outside of these easily recognisable online banner/video ads. Examples of these more embedded and content-related forms promotions are discussed in Section 18B.2 E-cigarette advertising and promotion.
11.11.1 Evidence of impact of Internet exposure to tobacco imagery on smoking attitudes and behaviours
Social media exposure to tobacco promotions can generate favourable attitudes towards tobacco. A 2014 US study found that among youth who had never used tobacco, exposure to tobacco promotions on Facebook was associated with: a higher likelihood of thinking that people who smoked looked cool and had more friends, a willingness to smoke if a friend offered, and being less likely to believe that tobacco products and second-hand smoke were dangerous.9 Among never tobacco users, 14-15 year olds were more likely to have some pro-tobacco attitudes.9
A 2016 Australian study found that past-month exposure to Internet-based tobacco advertising and branding among young people increased over the years of the survey (advertising: 21% in 2010 to 29% in 2013; branding: 20% in 2010 to 26% in 2013). The participants who were younger, female, from lower socioeconomic status, and never-smokers were more likely to report exposure. Facebook was the most commonly cited platform for encountering tobacco branding in 2013 (22% of all branding). Compared with young people interviewed in 2013, participants in 2010 were significantly less likely to report exposure to tobacco branding on social media. Among never-smokers aged 12-17 years, exposure to online advertising and branding or branding alone were significant predictors of smoking susceptibility.10
While not strictly Internet-based, a study that measured tobacco and alcohol content in the most popular UK video games found that adolescents who had played at least one game that contained tobacco use depictions were significantly more likely to have ever tried smoking.11
11.11.2 Social media and video sharing platforms
Social media has provided tobacco companies with a platform for both promoting their products and for countering tobacco control denormalising strategies. Tobacco companies can use social media to maintain favourable associations with smoking and particular brands.12 Tobacco industry use of online interactivity and audience engagement tools has been documented since 2008. Early examples include:
- Thousands of US smokers helping to design a new pack for Camel cigarettes through an interactive website.13
- British American Tobacco (BAT) employees internationally and enthusiastically promoting BAT cigarette brands on Facebook.14
- The cigarette rolling paper company Rizla hosting interactive and shareable games on its corporate website.15 The games are meant to reflect ‘the brand’s image as fun, interactive, individual, colourful and creative.’16
YouTube is the most researched social media site in the tobacco control field.12 YouTube is also the most popular forum for watching online video with more than 15 million Australian adults accessing the site monthly. Australian adults spend an average of 24 hours and 35 minutes on the site per month (data from September 2018), with those age 18-39 spending almost 36 hours per month viewing content on YouTube. The bulk, 72%, of content viewing occurs on smartphones and tablets.17
Tobacco imagery is ‘prolific and accessible’ on YouTube (p210)18 and the dominance of pro-smoking content has persisted over time.18 Videos are diverse and can be posted from virtually any country in the world. Videos with pro-smoking content ranged from images of young men and women smoking, to smoking fetish scenarios, to magic tricks featuring cigarettes. Additionally, vintage cigarette advertisements appear on the site. While the research was unable to determine if the tobacco industry had posted any of this material, there was evidence that distributors of the Swedish smokeless tobacco, snus, had posted promotional videos on the site. Another study specifically assessed the prevalence, accessibility, and characteristics of smoking fetish clips on YouTube.19 Smoking fetish videos are highly prevalent and accessible to adolescents on the website and feature sexually explicit smoking behaviour by sexy, young and healthy females. The authors call for tighter restrictions to ensure children cannot readily access this content. A 2009 study analysed the YouTube video search results for five leading non-Chinese cigarette brands worldwide.20 More than 70% of the tobacco brand-related videos analysed in the study featured pro-tobacco content. BAT and Philip Morris USA both deny promoting their products on YouTube.21
Music videos in particular are highly viewed, shared, and popular content on YouTube, they are also a major global source of exposure to tobacco imagery.22 A UK study quantified tobacco and alcohol content, including evidence of branding, in YouTube music videos. Music videos of the 110 most popular songs in the UK music charts during a 12-week period from 3 November 2013 to 19 January 2014 were included.ii The study found that tobacco appeared in 22% of all videos; electronic cigarettes in 2%; tobacco branding in 4%; and electronic cigarette branding in 1%. The most frequently observed tobacco and electronic cigarette brands were Marlboro and E-Lites.22 See image 11.11.1 for an example of a tobacco depiction from a music video.
Sample of tobacco depiction in a music video.
Source: Robin Thicke - Blurred Lines (ft. T.I. & Pharrell) from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyDUC1LUXSU
Another UK study that aimed to estimate adult and adolescent exposure to tobacco and alcohol content in YouTube music videos found that the 32 videos included in the survey, collectively delivered an estimated 203 million impressions of tobacco use to the British population. Adolescents were exposed to an average of 10.5 tobacco impressions per capita and adults to an average of 2.9 tobacco impressions per capita. The highest number of tobacco impressions per capita occurred in the 13-18 age group with an average of 11.48 impressions.23
While the majority of content on popular social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram does not have a commercial purpose, promotion of tobacco brands on these site can occur in exactly the same way as users can be invited to join a group for dog lovers or respond to an invitation to a 21st birthday party. Tobacco promotion also occurs through influencer and product placement marketing and increasingly through corporate social responsibility and alternative (e-cigarette and heat not burn) product marketing. Though the tobacco industry’s reputation in mainstream media is generally negative,24, 25 social networking sites provide it with an outlet to reinvent itself as a modern, friendly industry and dissociate itself from the harm caused by its products. New media thus offer tobacco companies a powerful and efficient channel for rapidly countering the denormalising strategies and policies of tobacco control. Adding to this potential is the increased use of social media as a way of engaging with brands and organisations.26
As mentioned above, in 2010 BAT employees were found promoting BAT and BAT brands on Facebook by joining and administrating groups, joining pages as fans, and posting photographs of BAT events, products and promotional items14 (Figure 11.11.1) BAT employees undertaking these actions were from countries that have ratified the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which requires parties to ban all forms of tobacco advertisements and promotions, including online and any cross-border exposure from countries which are not enforcing advertising restrictions.27 BAT Scientific Communications Manager, Marina Murphy, responded to the Facebook study on the Tobacco Control Journal website, stating that:
‘Social media and other types of user-generated content sites are growing at a phenomenal rate. Because of this, earlier this year we reminded our employees, agencies and service providers of our long-standing rules, to ensure that they were in no doubt about their existing obligations and responsibilities as they apply to this relatively new and growing medium.
Our rules mean that employees, agents and service providers cannot freely and on their own initiative post advertising material, in whole or part, on social networking sites, blog sites, chat forums or other user-generated content sites such as YouTube, whatever the intention in posting the material may be. The web is vast and constantly changing, and no company can continuously police it. Things can happen there that we simply don’t know about. However, we can work hard to ensure that our rules on internet use are understood and applied by our own people and contractors, and we are doing so ...
Nonetheless, the report has drawn to our attention some specific instances which ‘if they have involved any of our employees or service providers’ would certainly be wrong and should not have happened. We are investigating these and if we find that Group employees or service providers have posted material that they shouldn’t, perhaps out of naivety, we will be telling them to remove it.’28
A fan page for the BAT brand Lucky Strike
Source: Becky Freeman private collection
A 2018 investigation led by the US based Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, found that tobacco companies are advertising cigarettes on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter by paying social media influencers—popular, primarily young people with large online followings—to post images of cigarettes and smoking.29 The investigation documented more than 100 social media campaigns globally by multinational tobacco companies Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Brands. The campaigns were primarily targeted a low- and middle-income countries. The social media influencers disclosed in interviews that they were paid to promote cigarettes online to millions of followers without disclosing that they were engaged in paid advertising.
Key findings from the investigation include:
- Tobacco companies seek out young people who have significant numbers of followers online and pay them to post photos featuring Marlboro, Lucky Strike and other cigarette brands. Social media influencers are trained on what cigarette brands to promote, when to post pictures for maximum exposure and how to take “natural photos” that do not look like staged advertisements. In Italy, influencers paid to promote Lucky Strike cigarettes were instructed to make sure health warnings on cigarette packs were not visible in photos posted online.
- Tobacco companies organize parties and contests with cigarette brand sponsorships and encourage participants to post on their social media accounts.
- Influencers are instructed to include specific hashtags promoting cigarettes on social media posts.
Tying together in-person events with online promotion, especially through social media, is an effective way of increasing the reach of promotional messages. For example, in the biggest and most celebrated fashion event of the year in New York City—the MET gala—celebrities have blatantly violated New York City’s smoking ban in public places. American fashion designer, Marc Jacobs, posted an image of himself smoking during the event in the "girls’ room" with celebrities Courtney Love, her daughter Frances Bean Cobain, and Char de Francesco. Char de Francesco can be seen holding a Marlboro cigarette packet, associating the brand with exclusivity, celebrity, fashion and rebellion.30 Although, it is unclear if these celebrities were paid/encouraged by the tobacco manufactures or marketing firms to post these images. See Image 11.11.3. Courtney Love was a paid spokesperson for NJOY e-cigarettes in 2013.31
Celebrities smoking at the MET gala as posted to Instagram
11.12.3 Streaming television programs
With viewership of traditional television decreasing, and online streaming and paid subscription increasing, streamed content is a growing source of potential tobacco promotions. For example, Netflix, a global streaming service provider and content creator, with 117.58 million subscribers worldwide as of 2017, produces popular content that is well documented to contain smoking depictions. A study in the US used a nationally sourced sample of youth and young adults to identify 14 of the most popular broadcast and cable television shows for this age group, and then analysed these shows for tobacco imagery. The study found that 79% of the shows most popular with the 15–24 years age group depicted smoking.32 The seven Netflix shows in the sample registered a total of 319 “tobacco incidents”.33 The study was unable to clarify if these depictions were paid/supported by the tobacco industry.
11.12.4 Corporate Social Responsibility promotion through online channels
Corporate Social Responsibility [CSR] is an important tool for companies to improve their image and also acts as a cover to skirt strict advertising and promotion laws. The industry adeptly uses social media to tout its CSR agenda.34 An illustrative example is the tobacco industry’s supposed commitment to women’s equality.35 Celebrated annually on the 8th of March, International Women’s Day highlights the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women, and also marks the call to action for accelerating gender parity. In 2017, the theme was ‘Be Bold for Change’. Philip Morris International (PMI) posted a 2-minute video (14,000 views 24 hours after posting) on its public Facebook page (more than 1.3 million members) that opens with the statement “changing one woman’s life can benefit a whole community”. The video also featured Womanity Foundation and how they valued the partnership between corporations and the social development sector. PMI, a partner of the Womanity Foundation, has been supporting social development capacity building and mentoring programmes in India and Brazil. British American Tobacco (BAT) also used Twitter to feature images of female BAT employees, one of whom held a gift with a message about BAT’s commitment to diversity. See image 11.11.4
BAT Careers Twitter account posts for International Women’s Day.
Source: Tobacco Control https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/26/3/243
11.12.5 Regulation of online tobacco promotions
In May 2007, the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy (MCDS) supported a move by the Australian Government to seek to amend the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Act 1992 (TAP Act) to more explicitly prohibit advertising on the Internet.36 Possible changes investigated by the Australian Government included broadening the current definition of ‘to publish an advertisement’ to include ‘transmitting’ the advertisement in electronic form.36 The Australian Government also sought to investigate the inclusion of elements such as:
- display listings of tobacco products for sale in a text-only format
- display prescribed graphic health warnings on the site
- require an age-restricted access system so that minors are discouraged from visiting the site and viewing the advertisements within
- quantify any and all taxes and other charges that may be payable over and above the advertised price on the product.
In November 2010, the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Amendment Bill 2010 was introduced into Parliament. The Minister for Health and Ageing, Nicola Roxon, stated that the legislation would bring restrictions on tobacco advertising on the Internet into line with restrictions in other media and those at physical points of sale. Online sales, advertising and promotion of tobacco were to be subject to the same kind of restrictions that are placed on over the counter sales. The main impact of the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Amendment Bill 2010 was focused on retailers who advertise their products without the required health warnings and as being ‘tax free’.37 The legislation aimed to strengthen the TAP Act by making it a specific offence to advertise or promote tobacco products on the internet and all other electronic medium, unless compliant with State and Territory, or Commonwealth legislation. The amendment was passed in both Houses on 08 February 2012. The amended legislation is cautious in its approach, as it only brings Internet advertising in line with advertising in other media and clarifies some uncertainty about the reach of the TAP Act.38 Online sales of tobacco products, for example, were not banned as part of the changes. While the amendment aims to regulate tobacco advertising that has an Australian link, it can do very little about tobacco advertisements on overseas websites by foreign companies.
Some social media and other online platforms do have their own, admittedly limited policies on tobacco advertising. Facebook for example, has an advertising policy and list of prohibited content, which includes tobacco products. It states, “Ads must not promote the sale or use of tobacco products and related paraphernalia."39 Google also has an advertising policy on dangerous products or services and prohibits tobacco or any products containing tobacco; products that form a component of a tobacco product, as well as products and services that directly facilitate or promote tobacco consumption; and products designed to simulate tobacco smoking.40 However, there are major loopholes whereby these policies only cover direct paid advertisements and not embedded or free content, and tobacco sites may get around the policy by using creative keywords such as smoking information.
Recognising the global challenge of regulating online promotions, at the eighth session of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control [FCTC] Conference of the Parties (COP8) the Parties agreed to establish an intersessional Working Group to develop specific guidelines to address cross-border TAPS and the depiction of tobacco in the entertainment media under Article 13 of the WHO FCTC, taking account of technological advances over the past decade such as the Internet and mobile communications.41
i. For example: http://www.cheapcigarettes.com.au/ www.cigars.com.au www.tobaccostation.com.au
ii. A montage of the video clips that feature smoking depictions be viewed here: https://youtu.be/edRA6yvFYWQ
Relevant news and research
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.(Last updated May 2019)
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2. National Cancer Institute. Chapter 3: Key principles of tobacco promotion and rationales for regulation, in Tobacco control monograph 19: The role of the media in promoting and reducing tobacco use. Bethesda MD: US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute; 2008. Available from: http://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/tcrb/monographs/19/m19_3.pdf.
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19. Kim K, Paek H, and Lynn J. A content analysis of smoking fetish videos on YouTube: Regulatory implications for tobacco control. Health Communication, 2010; 25(2):97–106. Available from: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/ftinterface~content=a919822726~fulltext=713240928
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41. Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. FCTC/COP8(17) Tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship: Depiction of tobacco in entertainment media. 2018. Available from: https://www.who.int/entity/fctc/cop/sessions/cop8/FCTC__COP8(17).pdf?ua=1.