Are tobacco companies using YouTube to target young smokers?

Are tobacco companies using slick internet videos to target young people with cigarette advertisements? Researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand analyzed YouTube videos for five popular cigarette brands to assess for content aimed at young people.

The researchers found that most of the videos had “pro-tobacco” content - and many appeared to be professionally produced - compared with only a small fraction that had anti-smoking messages. The researchers searched the YouTube web site using the terms Marlboro, L&M, Benson and Hedges, Winston, and Mild Seven. They chose the 40 most-viewed videos for each search (or all the videos in searches that returned fewer that 40) and analyzed the content.


Seventy-one percent (116) of the 163 tobacco brand-related videos contained “pro-tobacco content” compared with 3.4 percent (6 videos) that were anti-tobacco. Three of the most frequent themes in the videos were sports, movies/celebrities, and music, which the researchers said were “of interest to a youth audience.”

Thestudy, published in the BMJ journal Tobacco Control, noted that tobacco companies have “vehemently” deny advertising on the internet. That includes Philip Morris – now Altria – which was quoted in a 2007 ABC News story as saying “we don’t think people should be able to advertise or promote tobacco on the internet.”

Still, the researchers wrote, “pro-tobacco videos have a significant presence on YouTube, consistent with indirect marketing activity by tobacco companies or their proxies.”

More than 20 of the clips analyzed were “very professionally made,” suggesting an industry hand, the researchers wrote. And the researchers suggested that public health organizations request removal of pro-tobacco videos since YouTube policy is that material breaching copyrights or containing offensive material can be taken down.

“Tobacco companies stand to benefit greatly from the marketing potential of Web 2.0 without themselves being at significant risk of being implicated in violating any laws or advertising codes,” the researchers concluded.

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