The use of social media has had a profound impact on the way tobacco companies advertise their products. In recent years, tobacco companies have been found to have paid social media influencers to covertly promote their products, using subtle business campaign labels instead of those that would indicate that these posts are, in fact, advertising. This has caused many platforms to ban paid advertisements, but few have addressed novel ways of promoting tobacco and prohibiting access by young people. Reducing exposure to electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) and other tobacco content has the potential to reduce the onset and persistence of ENDS and tobacco use. YouTube, for example, has banned paid tobacco ads and limited the ability to monetize videos that promote tobacco by labeling them as “with limited or no ads”.
In addition, platforms must clearly define policies that prohibit the promotion and sale of tobacco products through both direct and indirect methods (such as influencers who market the product) and explicitly establish policies that prohibit young people from accessing promotional content about tobacco. Research led by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has found that the four largest tobacco companies use social networks in more than 40 countries to promote tobacco use without disclosing that they funded the content. These approaches aim to prevent or delay the progression of ENDS and tobacco use, and to increase motivation and actions to quit smoking in adolescents. Tobacco control researchers have studied the cross-border promotion of tobacco less because non-native languages and locations in other countries are often omitted from social media surveillance (usually not in English and in non-U. S. languages).
The Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health (PATH) study was conducted to determine the influence of social media content on various types of ENDS and adolescent smoking behaviors. Six platforms restricted content that sells tobacco products and three tried to prohibit minors from accessing content that promotes or sells tobacco products. The ban on the sale of tobacco products varied: some prohibited sales on their official commercial platforms and others prohibited user-to-user transactions, which could include smoking-related gifts. Specifically, during the follow-up, 304 participants reported using only ENDS, 283 responses reported using a conventional tobacco product, and 162 cases indicated the use of both ENDS and at least one other conventional tobacco product. Policies related to sponsored content about tobacco were also limited, as only three of the platforms, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, had language that clearly prohibited sponsored, endorsed, or partnership-based content that promoted tobacco products. This study is an inter-agency collaborative project of the Marketing Influences Special Interest Group (SIG) with the support, in part, of the Coordination Center for Analysis, Science, Improvement and Logistics (CASEL) in tobacco regulatory science U54DA046060-01 (National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Tobacco Products (FDA CTP).