It has been years since the tobacco industry promised to stop luring young people to smoke cigarettes.
Philip Morris International says it is “designing a smoke-free future.” British American Tobacco, likewise, claims to be “transforming tobacco” into a safer product.
But while the Food and Drug Administration weighs plans to cut nicotine in cigarettes, making them less addictive, Big Tobacco has been making the most of the time it has using social networks to promote its brands around the world.
Most countries, like the United States, imposed rules back in the 1970s against marketing tobacco to youths; many have banned cigarette commercials on television and radio.
So the industry that brought the world the Marlboro Man, Joe Camel and slogans like “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” has latched onto the selfie generation’s screens in a highly adaptive way that skirts the advertising rules of old.
“What they are doing is a really effective way to get around existing laws to restrict advertising to young people,” said Robert V. Kozinets, a public relations professor at the University of Southern California, who led an international team of researchers examining the tobacco industry’s use of social media.
“The most surprising thing to me was the level of sophistication of these different global networks. You get incredible campaigns, the likes of which I’ve never seen before.”
International public health organizations are pushing back against tobacco companies around the world. Earlier this month, Bloomberg Philanthropies chose three international research centers to lead a new $20 million global tobacco watchdog group called STOP (Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products), with partners in the United Kingdom, Thailand and France, that will partly focus on social marketing.
Kozinets’ work, paid for by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy group, analyzed social media in 10 countries by looking for hashtags that connect to tobacco cigarette brands.
By promising anonymity, Kozinets’ researchers were able to interview paid and unpaid “ambassadors” and “microinfluencers” to reveal the connection between the tobacco companies, their communications agencies and social media posts on Instagram and Facebook.
The results of this study, along with research in 40 countries, led the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Lung Association and other public health groups to file a petition Friday with the Federal Trade Commission against four tobacco companies.
The petition claims that Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Brands are targeting young American consumers with deceptive social media marketing in violation of federal law. The petition calls on the FTC to stop the practices.
Several of the tobacco companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the petition. A spokesman for Philip Morris International said Friday afternoon that the company had yet to review the documents and therefore could not comment.
According to Caroline Renzulli, who oversaw the project for the campaign, 123 hashtags associated with these companies’ tobacco products have been viewed 8.8 billion times in the United States alone and 25 billion times around the world.
Representatives of some of the companies said they market only to adult smokers and comply with the laws of countries where they sell their products. Jonathan Duce, a spokesman for Japan Tobacco, said company-involved events were intended “to switch existing adult smokers to our brands from those of our competitors.”
“If smokers or vapers choose to share their social activity,” he added, “it is completely their choice.”
Simon Evans, a spokesman for Imperial Brands, acknowledged that the company paid “public opinion formers” to attend and post social media content about promotional events.
“Where this is the case, however, we make it clear to them they are not to post branded content,” Evans said.
Some posts use hashtags that are closely connected to the brands: #lus or #likeus for Lucky Strikes, for example. Other posts are more subtle, featuring cigarettes but no brand name, or appealing hashtags that signal autonomy or independence: #YouDecide, #DecideTonight and #RedIsHere are popular ones affiliated with Marlboro as is #FreedomMusic for Winston.
Sometimes the posts omit the cigarettes altogether, but mention upcoming parties and other events where cigarettes are promoted in giant displays and given away. The party decor colors often match those of a specific brand.
In an image from Indonesia, a pack of Dunhill cigarettes is a subtle prop. After a press inquiry, British American Tobacco said it would take down the post.
Lucky Strike ambassadors received these instructions last year in Italy, according to Kozinets, and they included a note to cover up images “required to be on the packages by law”(presumably the warning labels).
In an email, Simon Cleverly, an executive with British American Tobacco, said the company’s team in Italy was reviewing those documents, which researchers translated into English. The Like Us campaign ran from 2012 through 2017, he said.
Some themes repeated in several countries were British American Tobacco’s #TasteTheCity, which promoted Dunhill and Kent brands, and Philip Morris International’s #Newland and #Neuland, and #IDecideTo/#YouDecide.
In Uruguay, the researchers interviewed several ambassadors paid to post by Wasabi, a public relations firm working for Philip Morris International.
Corey Henry, a spokesman for Philip Morris International, said that none of the company’s marketing is aimed at recruiting new smokers, and that promotions include health warnings. He also said that no digital programs were conducted in Brazil this year.
He said the company’s Uruguay affiliate uses digital programs to “research trends among current adult smokers,” not to market cigarettes.
“As we transform our business toward a smoke-free future, we remain focused on maintaining our leadership of the combustible tobacco category outside China and the U.S.,” Henry said.