Firms under fire for using UK influencers to push nicotine products

8 November 2021

Rob Davies and Georgina Quach. Source: The Guardian

Companies accused of using social media influencers to entice young people to try nicotine products

Posing expertly for Instagram snaps, a parade of young and beautiful DJs, models and socialites line up to endorse Velo, a brand of flavoured nicotine pouches made by British American Tobacco (BAT).

Between them, the 26 social media influencers boast 2.2m followers, and an audience that skews young, meaning they are hard to reach through traditional advertising channels.

Holding up cans of Velo to the camera, DJ GW Harrison tells his 35,000 followers: “My favourite has to be the ruby berry flavour. What’s yours?”

MC and rapper Bru-C, AKA Josh Bruce, hails the “glow in the dark technology” to his 156,000-strong audience, while another DJ, Jess Bays, gushes: “Product is so cool – especially for in the clubs!”

The former Made in Chelsea star Alex Mytton has posted Velo-themed videos for his 391,000 followers, while racing driver Archie Hamilton, with 207,000 followers, features in an e-sports-themed YouTube series, in association with British racing team McLaren.

This new breed of nicotine influencer – one might call them nicotinfluencers – are soldiers at the UK front of a marketing war that London-based British American Tobacco has long been waging on foreign soil.

Earlier this year, analysis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that BAT had bet around £1bn on harnessing the popularity of influencers on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook to reach young people in countries including Pakistan, Sweden and Spain.

Now BAT is deploying the same tactic to win over British hearts and minds.

Alex Mytton holds Velo products
Made in Chelsea’s Alex Mytton promoting Velo products to his Instagram followers. Photograph: Instagram

Velo, the product at the heart of the Instagram promotion, is a small flavoured pouch, placed between the lip and gum, that releases a hit of nicotine to satisfy cravings.

According to material published on the websites of several major retailers, “You’ll feel a momentary tingling sensation, which is how you know the nicotine is released and working for you.”

BAT markets Velo as a way to “move on” – an alternative to cigarettes. Yet not one of the posts from BAT’s army of nicotinfluencers mentions quitting.

Indeed, critics suggest that the products are as much about recruiting new customers, pointing to BAT’s own analysis, which suggests that half of the market for the pouches comes from people who did not previously use nicotine.

In a letter to the chief executives of Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, a coalition of more than 100 health and anti-smoking groups from around the world are demanding an end to the promotion of the addictive products on social media.

They point to a report by the US surgeon general, which found that nicotine use could have a negative impact on both adolescent and pre-natal brain development. The same report found “substantial evidence” that using nicotine in adolescence can increase the likelihood of nicotine addiction in adulthood.

“The true intention of these ads is quite clear: to keep customers addicted to nicotine and to entice young people to try nicotine products,” said Caroline Renzulli, of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “Tobacco companies don’t care about your health. In fact, they don’t even care which addictive product you use, because as long as they can keep you using one, then they have a customer for life.”

A BAT spokesperson said: “Our products are for adults only and we believe that youth should never use any tobacco or nicotine products. Our marketing is done responsibly, in strict accordance with our international marketing principles, our youth access prevention guidelines, legislation and the policies of social media platforms.

“Our social media accounts are age-gated so they are only visible to adult users, for example in the UK market, where those users have confirmed that they are 18+, and all of our posts display the words ‘18+’ and ‘For adult nicotine consumers only’.”

Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, is investigating whether the posts conform to its guidelines, which prohibit the advertising of nicotine products. It has removed several since being contacted by the Guardian.

Velo’s Instagram campaigns are aimed at over-18s and the posts make that clear. But verifying the age of Instagram users is difficult and, according to a report by social media analytics firm Klear, 35% of the audience for such posts are under 24.

British American Tobacco is far from alone in leveraging the power of social media to push its products. Swedish Match, a nicotine pouch company that does not sell cigarettes, also appears to be targeting the UK with its brand, Zyn.

Its glossy Facebook page makes clear that the pouches are only for “existing smokers and vapers in the UK”, although it also says that they are “not a smoking cessation product”.

The Facebook campaign appears to support the notion that nicotine pouches can be used alongside tobacco, with the slogan: “Can’t smoke? Can’t vape? Can Zyn.”

DJ Lara Fraser at a Velo launch.
DJ Lara Fraser at a Velo launch. Photograph: Instagram

“We regularly review consumer engagement across social channels to ensure we are reaching the appropriate audience,” said a Zyn spokesperson. “Facebook does not receive any payment for click-throughs to”

A JIT spokesperson said influencers are vetted to ensure they don’t have a particular appeal to minors and that at least 75% of their audience are over 18.

In some cases, tobacco products are being openly marketed on social media. Ismod UK Ltd, which sells electronic tobacco heating devices, has enlisted young fashion influencers on Instagram for its marketing. Collaborators in the UK include Furkan Usenmez, a Devon-based menswear influencer with more than 9,800 followers, and Chloe Bain, a fashion model from Swindon with 140,000 followers, as well as model Sofia Spokes, who has 145,000 followers.

In the caption on her sponsored post, Bain, 27, offers a discount code that gives buyers up to 20% off.

Advertising Standards Authority regulations ban under-25s from “playing a significant role” in the non-broadcast advertising of cigarette alternatives. Spokes claims in her Instagram bio to be 20 years old. In posts labelled as Ismod ads, Bain and Spokes are pictured holding the tobacco heating device in their underwear.

Samer Jalloul, Ismod’s chief executive, said: “Ms Spokes’ account is managed by a third party internationally. We have, however, taken the appropriate measures to rectify the situation.

“We have never paid @sofiaaspokes for advertising. We always verify that [product reviewers] are smokers and of legal age. When we had initially checked, we did see that she was over 18, but did not realise that she was under 25.

“Inadvertently approving the brand content to show ‘paid partnership with’ was a mistake by a junior social media associate. We have now rectified this and ensured that this is removed and untagged accordingly.”

None of the influencers contacted by the Guardian responded.