8 April 2018:
Tobacco companies and vendors are making use of Facebook to market and sell their products, including to children under 18, a study has found.
The research by Stanford University’s Medical School found tobacco and e-cigarette companies making extensive use of unpaid or “organic” marketing to sell their products on the social network.
Of 108 Facebook pages for leading brands of tobacco and tobacco-related products found by the researchers, over half contained links to buy tobacco products and two thirds included coupons and discounts to entice potential buyers. All but one of the pages contained images of e-cigarettes, cigars, e-cigarettes, and smokeless tobacco.
Both “buy now” links and images of tobacco products are banned under Facebook’s tobacco advertising rules.
The social media giant permits blogs or groups connecting people with tobacco-related interests, as long as these do not promote or directly lead to sales.
“Facebook has policies designed to prohibit this but they are not good at enforcing them,” said Dr Robert Jackler, the study’s lead author and principal investigator of Stanford research.
Dr Jackler said that the large size of Facebook’s user base and huge volume of postings makes policing content difficult for Facebook, although he said there are ways the company could address this.
Facebook’s “page terms” require private sellers to restrict children’s access to pages promoting sales of regulated goods and services which include items such as prescription drugs, alcohol, firearms and tobacco.
The study found that over half of the tobacco brand-sponsored pages and 90 percent of online tobacco store pages did not have “age-gating” safeguards in place to prevent children from accessing their content.
Over 2 billion people worldwide use Facebook and brands are increasingly using the platform to market their products and services to young people.
Facebook remains the UK’s most popular social network with 32 million users, including over 2 million teenagers, although it’s popularity among teenagers is declining compared to platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat.
Deborah Arnott, CEO of UK charity Action on Smoking & Health, is concerned that social media’s looser regulatory environment may encourage some young people to take up smoking.
“While the proportion of children smoking is declining, and is now at the lowest level since records began, there are still hundreds of children starting smoking every day and the easier it is to buy tobacco, the easier it is for them to start,” said Arnott.
“There is a real risk that easy access to cheap tobacco through the internet could undermine the Government’s vision, set out in the Tobacco Control Plan for England, of achieving a ‘smoke-free generation’.”
Recently, tobacco companies including Philip Morris, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco have come under fire for marketing cigarettes to children, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.
The study’s authors decided to focus on Facebook because younger people are more likely to take up smoking and tend to be the most active on social media.
“Very few adults decide ‘I’m going to start smoking today’. Smoking infiltration begins with teens,” said Dr Jackler. “The industry understands that’s where its customers come from.”
He added that many of the tactics employed by marketers on Facebook were deliberately designed to appeal to young people.
More than three quarters of British smokers aged 16 to 24 in 2014began smoking before the age of 18. Children who start smoking younger are more likely to smoke heavily and more likely to struggle later on with kicking the habit.
Dr Jackler is hopeful that the study will encourage Facebook to tighten existing loopholes in its tobacco-related policies and believes that Facebook’s restrictions are well-intentioned, despite the fact tobacco companies are currently able to evade them.
“Facebook’s policies about tobacco show a sense of social responsibility,” said Dr Jackler. “With a little effort Facebook can clear up and have a win.”
Arnott believes that the social media giant is not doing enough.
“The Facebook guidelines are clear – promoting the sale or use of tobacco is forbidden, yet cigarettes are still readily available on Facebook, and complaints about it have been ignored,” she said.