Social Media

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Key points

  • Tobacco companies use social media to promote their products, mount opposition to policies, and generate a favourable public image.
  • A newer tactic is to pay social media influencers to covertly promote products
  • Tobacco industry activity on social media circumvents regulations around tobacco marketing and industry interference with health policy.


The tobacco industry has long used advertising, alongside sophisticated public relations techniques, to target its products at new generations of consumers.1 Article 13 of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) recommends a comprehensive ban on all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.23

Historically, tobacco advertising has focused on television, radio and point-of-sale display.4 Exposure to tobacco advertising through these means increases positive perceptions of tobacco brands5 and is associated with an increased risk of starting smoking.4

Digital Marketing

The FCTC recognises “online interactive marketing methods” as an avenue for industry marketing communications.3 Facebook, Instagram,6 Twitter,7 and YouTube8 all have policies which prohibit the advertising of tobacco products.

However, the way in which tobacco companies promote their products on these platforms is constantly evolving to circumvent restrictions. Tobacco promotion is highly prevalent on social media,9 including brand-specific pages. One US study, published in 2020, found that tobacco brand pages rarely used the age restriction tools available, did not display health warnings, and commonly presented images of tobacco products while using hashtags unrelated to tobacco to expand the reach of these posts.10 A British American Tobacco (BAT) promotion of its heated tobacco product Glo on Instagram used the slogans “best of both worlds” and “do both”, implicitly promoting dual use of the product with cigarettes.11

Research shows that exposure to depictions of tobacco use on social media predicts future tobacco use and is a stronger predictor than exposure in television or film.1213 Some young people (including the very young, those who have not used tobacco before, and those from minority groups) who have been exposed to tobacco promotion on social media are more likely to have favourable attitudes to tobacco than those who have not.14

Platforms and tactics

Research has identified different tactics used on social media platforms, although these change quickly with technological innovations

  • YouTube: A 2010 study found that tobacco brand pages had a high presence of pro-tobacco content and brand imagery15 Other research has identified promotional strategies and the use of smoking imagery on the platform.1617
  • Facebook: Tobacco brand pages are widespread, often promoting e-cigarettes, waterpipe (or hookah) and cigars. Sales promotion and brand promotion are the main promotional strategies used, with the use of tobacco product images, purchase links and sales promotions being common.179 Individual tobacco company employees also promote tobacco products on Facebook.18
  • We Chat & Weibo: In China, tobacco companies have used WeChat (similar to WhatsApp) to promote products using targeted marketing including product and brand recommendations.19 On Weibo (similar to Twitter) the tobacco industry targets young people with tobacco advertising based on popular culture.20

Companies also often use special features of social media platforms, such as temporary Instagram ‘stories’ and pop-up chat windows on Facebook.10

In some cases, conventional advertising directs consumers towards digital advertising practices. For example, in Indonesia, tobacco companies have been found to use point-of-sale displays to provide links to digital platforms displaying tobacco promotion, including links to websites and use of hashtags.21

Use of Influencers

The tobacco industry has a prolonged history of using a variety of allies, including front groups, public relations companies, and think tanks, to promote its messages and products. Given the increasing social unacceptability of smoking, the industry employs promotional methods that are more socially acceptable, and harder to identify or restrict, such as the use of influencers as brand ‘ambassadors’.22 Tobacco companies  have been found to have paid social media influencers to covertly promote tobacco products , using subtle company campaign hashtags rather than those which would indicate that these posts are in fact advertising.23

Although most social media platforms restrict tobacco product advertising, many do not clearly prohibit sponsored content such as that promoted through influencers.24 Even when social media platforms do ban this type of advertising, doubts remain around how these polices can be enforced, with evidence that the industry continues to subvert these policies and market their products to young people:25

  • An investigation led by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids (CTFK) revealed how the major transnational tobacco companies, Phillip Morris International (PMI), British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and Imperial Brands, have used influencers to draw millions of views to campaigns promoting their cigarette brands.23 For example, PMI used over 600 influencers in its “I Decide To” campaign to promote Marlboro cigarettes; this campaign was viewed over 47 million times globally. BAT used over 400 influencers in its “Like Us” campaign to promote Lucky Strike cigarettes; a campaign that was viewed 25 million times globally.2326
  • Influencers promote heated tobacco products (HTPs) on Instagram. Research in the Czech Republic found that influencers’ promotion of PMI’s IQOS was accessible to young people and non-smokers on Instagram, where the product was presented as a “gateway to an aspirational, healthy, attractive and celebrity lifestyle.”27
  • PMI’s social media marketing campaign for IQOS in Russia was halted in 2019 after being exposed by Reuters for using young social media influencers, including a 21-year old. This is despite PMI’s own policies banning the use of models who are, or appear to be, under 25.28
  • Despite Instagram’s ban on sponsored e-cigarette content, research analysing influencer activity on the platform in 2020 showed that companies were still collaborating with influencers on the platform to promote e-cigarettes. The 55 most engaging influencers were found to have collaborated with 640 e-cigarette brands.29
  • The e-cigarette company JUUL Labs, which is part-owned by the tobacco company Altria, paid social media influencers to act as ‘brand ambassadors’ who post positive reviews of their products.30
  • The Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed in 2021 that BAT was using paid social media influencers to promote its newer nicotine and tobacco products on Instagram (see Image 1).31
  • The Guardian also reported BAT’s use of influencers to promote its nicotine pouches, as has Swedish Match (which is now owned by PMI).32
  • Further investigation by CTFK, published in 2023, showed how BAT and PMI used social media to promote their newer products. CTFK alleged that 40% of the audience targeted (mainly on Instagram) was under 25, and 16 million were under 18.3334

Image 1. A promotional post by an influencer on Instagram (Source: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, New Products, Old Tricks? Concerns Big Tobacco Is Targeting Youngsters, 2nd February 2021).

Public Image

The tobacco industry uses multiple corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies to promote a favourable public image, in an attempt to rehabilitate its damaged reputation and facilitate access to policymakers. Article 13 of the WHO FCTC recommends a ban on CSR by tobacco companies because it is a form of brand advertising.3

Tobacco companies regularly tweet about how their activities promote human rights and reduce environmental harm.3536 Sustainability awards can help tobacco companies to ‘greenwash’ their more damaging activities.

PMI and BAT both took to Twitter on International Women’s Day 2019, in order to portray themselves as gender equality advocates, while in effect covertly promoting their products to women and girls.37 This is despite the fact that smoking is hugely damaging to women’s health.38

Opposition to Policy

Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC recommends that Parties take steps to prevent tobacco industry interference in policy making.39 The tobacco industry uses multiple strategies to oppose tobacco control policies, including conducting public relation campaigns, influencing science, using lobby groups and front groups, and supporting the adoption of weaker or voluntary policies.404142

Tobacco companies also use social media as a channel to support interference in policy making. Companies and their allies tweet in opposition to policies, such as those relating to: illicit tobacco, plain packaging, tobacco taxes, tobacco-related trade agreements, and smoke-free environments.35

Tobacco companies also use social media to amplify the debate about harm reduction, and lobby for the relaxation of regulations around newer products:

  • During the eighth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the WHO FCTC (COP8), PMI executives and NGP advocates with links to organisations funded by PMI had a large presence on Twitter. The majority of tweets supported newer products, and about one quarter were critical of tobacco control. This aligns with PMIs leaked corporate affairs strategy to “amplify and leverage the debate on harm reduction around global events (eg, COP6)”.43
  • During COP9, tobacco industry allies were seen to advocate for the industry agenda. For details see the page on COP 9 and MOP 2.
  • A Facebook page created by PMI was used to lobby for the relaxation of regulations for selling PMI’s HTP, ‘IQOS’, in Australia.44

TobaccoTactics Resources

Media Strategy

Advertising Strategy

CSR Strategy

Newer Nicotine and Tobacco Products

TCRG Research

Robertson, A. Joshi, T. Legg, et al, Tobacco Control, Exploring the Twitter activity around the eighth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Tobacco Control, 2020, doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2020-055889.

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