Tobacco and e-cigarette companies are paying so-called social media influencers -- quasi-celebrities with large followings -- to promote and market their products directly to young people on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, according to a letter from more than 100 public health and tobacco-free organizations.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other organizations on Wednesday called on the tech companies to revise their policies around the marketing of cigarettes and related products on their platforms. They cited a Reuters report exposing Philip Morris International Inc's use of young and attractive models and personalities to promote its tobacco products as the impetus for the action.
"Tobacco companies like Philip Morris International promote their products on social media because they know it is the gateway to young people all over the world. Indeed, the tobacco industry's entire business model depends on addicting the next generation of tobacco users to its products," the letter asserts.
While TV and magazine tobacco ads have long been banned, there is no law that stops tobacco or e-cigarette marketing on digital media: Social media companies simply create their own policies to monitor it. But tobacco companies are effectively circumventing those policies. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has compiled examples of posts viewed more than 100 million times that show social media "ambassadors" promoting cigarettes and tobacco-related products in lifestyle postings that are considered far more effective than traditional ads.
The mood of the images mimics big tobacco's wildly successful strategies when there were fewer restrictions on advertisements.
"Frequently the images that are projected are the very kind of lifestyle images that have been banned in other forms of marketing because of their appeal to kids. They show young people who are very, very attractive sometimes in sexually attractive poses," said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Men, meanwhile, are portrayed as rugged and masculine. "It's the modern day Marlborough cowboy permeating social media," Myers said.
Instagram and parent company Facebook both ban tobacco advertisements and Twitter said it prohibits "the promotion of tobacco products, accessories and brands worldwide," Reuters reported. "But the loophole is that the bans don't cover paid influencers and they don't have a mechanism for tracking those kinds of posts," Myers said.
The anti-tobacco organizations believe in a two-pronged solution that involves action from both governments and the tech companies whose platforms tobacco companies have permeated.
The onus is on social media companies to develop policies and algorithms that can detect influencers. "Governments need to do what they can but without the true assistance of social media companies, their task is impossible," Myers said.
The organizations are calling on tech companies to take "swift action" to remedy the problem by amending and enforcing their policies, and suspending users who violate them.
"The evidence is clear that without swift action by Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, Philip Morris International and other tobacco companies will continue to use your platforms to addict the next generation of tobacco users around the world. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter have a fantastic opportunity to prevent this from continuing," the letter reads.
Myers highlighted the urgent nature of the request.
"These ads are extraordinarily influential. And the images they project are the exact kind of images that country after country has banned because of their powerful impact on youth," Myers said.
Below are a handful of examples of social media posts that health groups say glamorize smoking and e-cigarette use, also called vaping.