Millions of young people exposed to vape posts online, charity says

8 December 2023

By Sarah March, The Guardian

Report claims posts promoting smoking alternatives have been viewed more than 3.4bn times across social media

Tens of millions of young people on social media are being shown posts promoting nicotine pouches and vapes using discounts, giveaways and paid influencers, according to a report.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids claims companies are using “aggressive” tactics and that posts promoting smoking alternative nicotine and tobacco products had been viewed more than 3.4bn times across social media platforms.

The report alleges that 40% of the audience was under 25 and 16 million were under 18. The majority of views were on Instagram.

In the first study investigating the scale of such content, the charity examined three brands: Velo, a nicotine pouch sold by British American Tobacco; Vuse, an e-cigarette also sold by BAT; and Iqos, a heated tobacco product sold by Philip Morris International, the company behind Marlboro cigarettes.

A BAT spokesperson said the company made it clear that its vapour and nicotine pouches were “for adult smokers and nicotine users only”. They said it required anyone who worked with it in a brand partnership to be over 25 and “to ensure that the significant majority of their followers are above 18”.

Philip Morris said that “without the ability to analyse the report in its entirety”, it was “not positioned to provide a full response”. A spokesperson said: “Responsible sales and marketing are key priorities for PMI.” They said it communicated about its products “to an adult audience”.

Yolonda Richardson, chief executive of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the report “should raise the alarm bells” around inappropriate marketing.

BAT and Philip Morris targeted more than 60 countries with their marketing campaigns, the report claims. The charity said the tobacco brands were found to be “using a variety of marketing tactics to flood social media”. These included sports brand collaborations, discounts and giveaways, direct product marketing, paid influencers and paid adverts.

The charity said it wanted a legal responsibility to be placed on social media companies to proactively identify and remove any illegal tobacco and nicotine product marketing from their platforms.

BAT and Philip Morris use at least 56 social media accounts in at least 45 countries to directly promote their products, despite Facebook and Instagram’s advertising policies banning ads for tobacco and nicotine products.

Tomorrowland festival, an annual electronic dance music festival held in Belgium, is sponsored by BAT. The report says BAT “uses the Tomorrowland music festival series as an online promotion vehicle for Vuse and Velo”.

Tomorrowland said it was a festival for over-18s and that while BAT sold some products there, it was not promoting the products on site or via the festival’s social media or other communication channels.

Philip Morris sponsored Romanian design week 2023 and a summer “Jazz in the Park” series in Romania to promote Iqos. The company also worked with several high-profile brands to promote the events on social media. Under-18s were welcome at Jazz in the Park.

The report also claims that BAT uses promo codes to encourage sales of products such as Velo. For example, Instagram followers are given special codes that grant the user 15% off products. The company also promotes contests and giveaways on social media, and followers can enter to win a free iPhone by engaging with BAT’s social media content.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids called on governments to implement domestic and cross-border marketing bans on all tobacco and nicotine products and to enforce existing ones. It said this should include “collaborating with other governments to identify and remove illegal marketing entering their territories”.

It also called for social media companies to “adopt and proactively enforce policies that comprehensively ban tobacco and nicotine advertising on their platforms”. It said this should include marketing through paid influencer campaigns, advertisements, and accounts or pages run by tobacco companies or affiliates. Nicotine products that are approved as cessation products should be exempted from these policies, it said.

The report is based on data from social listening tools including Keyhole, CrowdTangle and Klear. The charity manually identified hundreds of influencer posts and tobacco industry-run accounts by tracking how often brands were mentioned and the keywords associated with marketing campaigns. It used that data to have the tools calculate the reach, impressions and audience of the content.

A Meta spokesperson, representing Instagram and Facebook, said: “We don’t allow ads or branded content that promotes tobacco-related products on our platforms and we’ll continue to remove content that breaks our rules. Brands can post about tobacco-related products, but this is restricted to adults over the age of 18.”

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