Facebook lost in a game of smoke and minors
Tobacco companies use “organic” marketing to hook kids while the social media giant struggles to police them
Tobacco companies and vendors are using 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, more than 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.
Jackler said the large size of Facebook’s user base and huge volume of postings makes policing content difficult, 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 prescription drugs, alcohol, firearms and tobacco.
The study found that more than half of the tobacco brand-sponsored pages and 90% of online tobacco store pages did not have “age-gating” safeguards in place to prevent children from accessing their content.
More than two billion people worldwide use Facebook and brands are increasingly using the platform to market their products and services to young people.
Deborah Arnott, CEO of UK charity Action on Smoking and 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,” says 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 Jackler. “The industry understands that is where its customers come from.”He added that many of the tactics employed by marketers on Facebook are designed to appeal to young people. More than three-quarters of British smokers aged 16 to 24 in 2014 began 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.
Jackler hopes the study will encourage Facebook to tighten existing loopholes in its tobacco-related policies, and believes 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 Jackler. “With a little effort Facebook can clear up and have a win.”
Arnott believes 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.
– © The Daily Telegraph