Are tobacco companies marketing to young people?

Date: 31/03/2021 Written by: Lindsey 8 minutes to read.
We take a look at the strategies companies are using to market cigarettes to young people.

See how huge tobacco companies are using marketing tactics to target young people. 

In the 1920’s smoking cigarettes was commonplace. It was not unusual to see colleagues smoking in the office or witness someone lighting up over lunch in a restaurant. Cigarettes were advertised on every corner and it was an acceptable habit that propelled your status within society [women would smoke a quellazaire in a ‘swanky’ jazz club] or help relax you after a hard day at work in working-class Britain [This is how I unwind after a 16 hour day].

100 years on and a lot has changed. Smoking is seen as a ‘dirty’ habit, far from being luxurious and indulgent as it once was. Cigarettes are banned from advertising. But if we flashback to just 20 or 30 years ago, cigarettes were still everywhere - we just switched from jazz clubs to nightclubs and cigarettes were advertised not just on billboards and in magazines... they played a prominent role in films, theatre productions and music videos. 

Today, It seems to me [I am in my 20's] that promoting smoking is ludicrous due to the health implications we know they have. Despite so many people switching from cigarettes to ‘e-cigarettes’ (electronic cigarettes), which were first introduced to the UK in 2007, smoking is becoming less and less common. There is no doubt that we have evolved and moved on since the 1920s, but what amazes me is that smoking is still the single greatest cause of premature death in the UK, killing over 120,000 people a year. 

The BIG switch 

As an alternative to cigarettes, e-cigarettes were introduced to mimic the action of smoking and ‘get the nicotine rush’ without the toxic effect of tobacco smoke. With these devices growing in popularity, guidelines quickly followed, including marketing guidelines from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The ASA introduced guidelines that state that e-cigarettes can only be promoted in outdoor or cinema adverts and can’t feature in print or online; aside from factual claims from the brands’ website or in instances where the customer is seeking out the information, for example in the form of hashtags.

When advertising companies in the 1920s to the late 1990s would market their cigarettes, social media was not a thing. As we know, social media platforms are a key channel for marketers and they have created an opportunity for users to express themselves and advertise products in many diverse ways, including the subliminal advertisements of ‘e-cigarette’ products.

On social media platforms such as Instagram, the ASA banned ten e-cigarette adverts that appeared to be promoting ‘smoking’. These ads featured familiar faces to young people, including London singer Lily Allen and reality star Olivia Jade Attwood who both breached advertising rules. This ban occurred after complaints came in from pressure groups like Action on Smoking, Health: Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and STOP. The ASA stopped these ads as they were promotional rather than factual.

British American Tobacco (BAT)

British American Tobacco, however, claims that the posts were factual, with information coming straight from the website with product-focused hashtags, which meant that information would be found by people actively seeking it out.

Two vaping companies both owned by British American Tobacco, Blu and Vype, have found themselves under investigation by the ASA over adverts for e-cigarettes that [are claimed] to target under-18s and contain misinformation. Blu received complaints about poster ads, while Vype ran social media activity that people claim target children. 

Glo, a new heated tobacco product, created by British American Tobacco, has also come under fire. While informing regulators around the world that the product was only for current adult smokers, their marketing campaign appeared to say something different. Whilst launching Glo with a huge £1bn budget campaign, the company sponsored concerts and sporting events including an exclusive gig in Madrid by Spanish boyband Dvicio, with the front row full of influencers all promoting Glo. It is argued that this event alone could encourage young people [those predominately likely to attend a Dvicio gig] to pick up this harmful habit and spread the unconscious message that smoking is the ‘cool’ thing to do.

BAT’s mission is “stimulating the senses of new adult generations”, which does make us question whether they were ever planning on only marketing to ‘current adult smokers’ as they claim. Their own research shows that at least half of adult vapers (people who use e-cigarettes) were not using nicotine before, i.e., they had never previously smoked.

Philip Morris International (PMI)

Philip Morris International, a leading tobacco company is another company to watch. The company were forced to suspend using influencers to promote its IQOS heated tobacco products. This was after it emerged that one of the ambassadors was just 21 at the time of the post, four years younger than Philip Morris International’s policies stating that the minimum age for influencer marketing campaigns is 25.

Alina Tapilina was the Russian social media ambassador in question. Philip Morris International said: “Upon learning of these allegations, PMI immediately initiated and concluded an investigation”. The company took “swift action” to address the incident as it was a breach of their influencer guidance. The influencers’ actions were immediately suspended. The company reflected on this by saying: “We are not proud that a mistake was made, but what really matters is outcomes.” In this case, the outcomes from a social good perspective were unlikely to be realised. The damage was done. 

PMI has previously promised to only market to existing smokers, not young people or non-smokers. Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids president, Matthew Myers, claims that this has been happening for months, saying: “They didn’t stop until they were caught.” Philip Morris is often seen using “young, attractive influencers”.

It’s pretty clear to us that Philip Morris International knew exactly what their intentions were from the beginning - they are not stupid - using a particular type of influencer to market to an audience they wouldn’t usually be able to reach… youth.

A future problem? 

Although e-cigarettes are a lot less harmful than cigarettes [apparently] it doesn’t mean they are completely safe. The fact is that experts are still unaware of the long-term impact. They simply haven’t been around long enough for us to know. For every paper that says they are safe, another paper says they are not. However, e-cigarettes are acknowledged as a useful tool to help smokers to stop smoking cigarettes, but with clever marketing, they have become more than a stop smoking aid. In an ideal world, they should not be used by people [or marketed to people] who don’t already smoke, but as I have pointed out, whether that is children or adults, they are not marketed as a medicine. 

Some countries seem to have the foresight to see that there could be a problem in the making unless shift action is taken. In San Francisco they have banned e-cigarettes altogether over health scares. In the UK we have not banned e-cigarettes and are promoting vaping in smoking cessation. Public Health England deems it as a safe means to quit smoking. But the question remains... in doing so, are they using cigarettes as a sticking plaster, perhaps creating a public health problem of the future? Kicking the can down the road maybe? Again, we just don't know. But one thing we do know, and where leadership from the top is really needed, is making sure they don't end up in the hands of our kids. 

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