Tobacco companies may be using websites such as YouTube to get round marketing restrictions for tobacco content in place elsewhere, according to research published online today in Tobacco Control journal.
The tobacco industry, however, has flatly denied it is using social networking sites to promote cigarette brands.
Tobacco companies have always strongly denied advertising on the internet and several have signed up to a voluntary agreement to restrict direct advertising on websites.
For their study, researchers from the Department of Public Health, University of Otago, New Zealand targeted YouTube, because it has the largest market share of the online video market, and searched through the first 20 pages of video clips containing any reference to five tobacco brands.
These were Marlboro and L&M, marketed by Philip Morris; Benson and Hedges, marketed by both British American Tobacco and Gallagher; and Winston and Mild Seven, marketed by Japan Tobacco and Reynolds.
The study says: “The internet is an ideal forum for tobacco marketing, as it is largely unregulated and there is no global governing body for controlling content. Nevertheless, tobacco companies deny advertising on the internet.”
The researchers analysed 163 relevant clips, over 20 of which appeared to be “very professionally made”, they said.
The clips included the 40 most viewed for Marlboro, Winston cigarettes, and Benson and Hedges; 24 English language videos for Mild Seven; and 19 for L&M cigarettes.
Those videos associated with Marlboro were the most heavily viewed, totting up an average of almost 104,000 views each, with one attracting 2 million views alone.
Almost three quarters of the content found (71.2%) was classified as “pro-tobacco” with just 3.7% classified as “anti-tobacco”.
Most (70%) of the sample clips contained brand images of people smoking branded tobacco products, and most video clips for every brand studied, except Marlboro, contained brand content or the brand name in the title.
Out of 40 Marlboro videos, 39 had the name Marlboro in the title. Thirty-three appeared to be related to the brand— for example, containing images of a man on a horse or the Marlboro advertisement theme.
Archive material, celebrities/movies, sports, and music were the most common content themes in the 163 clips. These were likely to appeal to young people, said the authors.
They said: “This paper provides some preliminary insights into how tobacco companies may be marketing their brands on YouTube, and how governments and tobacco control organisations could work with YouTube webmasters to limit pro-tobacco content on the internet.”
A spokesperson for British American Tobacco said: “It is absolutely not our policy to use social networking sites such as Facebook or YouTube to promote our tobacco product brands, and not even the authors of this report claim we have done so.
“Using social media could breach local advertising laws and our own International Marketing Standards, which apply to our companies worldwide.”