The Sunday Mail (Queensland)
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Big Tobacco has enlisted social media influencers and online streaming to make smoking look cool again. Sue Dunlevy reports
SOCIAL media influencers, including high-profile singers and actors, are helping Big Tobacco get the next generation of Australians smoking.
A Sunday Mail investigation has found the companies are using devious tactics to get around laws banning advertising – with Facebook, Twitter and TikTok their preferred platforms.
They are also integrating their messaging into video games and offering retail staff computers, iPhones and cash incentives to push products to children and teens.
The revelations come as two major reviews, by the Federal Government and the World Health Organisation, are under way into toughening laws and guidelines around promotion of smoking and vaping.
And there are calls from Quit Victoria to give movies and TV shows depicting smoking higher classifications and include clear, upfront warnings.
Smoking among teenagers is declining but a school survey has found one in eight teenagers had tried vaping, and smoking among 25-29year-old men has increased.
This is because Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok have given tobacco companies new ways of avoiding advertising bans because posts on the platforms made from overseas are not covered by Australian law.
The Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Act was amended in 2012 to ban advertising on the internet “but how it works in practice is it’s only Australian content on Australian-based websites, Facebook and Twitter aren’t covered”, University of Sydney researcher Becky Freeman said.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a US non-profit advocacy group, found young social media influencers were paid by tobacco companies to promote cigarette brands to millions of Instagram followers.
The companies trained them on what cigarette brands to promote, when to post pictures for maximum exposure and how to take photos that did not look like staged ads. They were even instructed to make sure health warnings on cigarette packs were not visible.
A UK study found tobacco appeared in nearly one in four popular music videos delivering an estimated 203 million impressions of tobacco use, with teenagers seeing the most images.
Tobacco companies also organise parties to promote their products, where guests receive free cigarettes and other gifts and are encouraged to post on their social media accounts.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids found evidence of at least two parties hosted by cigarette brands in Australia, with influencers using at least 10 hashtags associated with global marketing campaigns by cigarette companies.
Breathe California at the University of California, San Francisco, found that from 2002 to 2019 more than 1430 films featured a total of 50,684 tobacco incidents and half of the films depicting smoking were youth-rated.
Anti-tobacco advocacy group The Truth Initiative found nine in 10 shows on some streaming services included characters smoking, including Stranger Things, a show directed at younger audiences, which contained 262 depictions of smoking.
Even computer games are being used to promote smoking. Quit Victoria director Sarah White said in the game The King of Avalon, when a character is stranded on an island they need a cigarette to recharge.