Big Tobacco are using Instagram influencers to advertise cigarettes even in Australia, advocates warn
The days of glitzy cigarette advertising luring young people to smoke are so far gone, it's hard to imagine they existed in the first place.
Jackie Blue Flat Women's Groove Ballet The only smoking ads young Australians can remember are the ones that told us to quit before we'd even started: macabre TV spots showing emphysemic patients on their deathbeds, using their last wheezy breaths to warn us not to take up the deadly habit.
But glamorous ads for cigarettes are circumventing Australian laws and making a fierce comeback by using Instagram influencers, anti-smoking advocates say.
In a petition filed to the United States Federal Trade Commission last week, the results of a two-year long study found that tobacco companies are using "the same marketing tactics they used in the US for decades to attract kids and young people", only with social media as its vehicle, a limitless and international audience, and absolutely zero regulations placed upon them.
Flat Groove Women's Jackie Blue Ballet They've called it the "greatest threat" to how young people perceive tobacco products today.
Matthew Myers, President for the anti-smoking advocacy group Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, who co-authored the report, told Hack that Big Tobacco are blatantly using influencers as their "front" for advertising.
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"We found evidence of major social media campaigns, clearly targeted at young people in at least 40 countries. We found examples of at least two campaigns that began in Australia. As a net result we found those campaigns generated over 25 billion views by individuals.
"As is usually the case with the tobacco industry, if you put up a dyke they'll find a hole in it. With social media, boundaries mean much less than they ever did before.
"It's truly insidious."
Jackie Flat Groove Ballet Women's Blue How it works
Obviously you can't just post an ad for cigarettes in Australia, or even America; our anti-smoking advertising laws state that corporations can face a fine of up to $126,000 if they advertise their products. Individuals can face a fine of up to $25,000.
But social media marketing has become very sophisticated in recent years: you've probably seen bloggers or celebrities you follow on instagram post shots of their favourite skincare or makeup brands; or maybe you've seen them post pictures from an event thrown by a champagne brand or beer label.
If those posts aren't actually paid for directly by the brands, they're often at least encouraged by them - with gifts, exclusive events, and parties.
Tobacco companies are doing the exact same thing on an international scale, Matthew Myers says.
"We began to see a series of events, hosted parties that attracted young people, where young people were given free cigarettes, often given free alcohol and gifts.
"In return what was expected of them was that they would post on social media to all of their friends, often featuring the product, or talking very favourably about the product, or cigarettes in general."
The report found evidence of at least two parties hosted by cigarette brands taking place in Australia, attended by influencers; and Australians using at least 10 hashtags associated with global marketing campaigns by cigarette companies.
Ballet Flat Jackie Groove Women's Blue "The work that [the Australian] government did to make sure that the kind of imagery that makes cigarettes so attractive to kids, they're seeing it now through social media that takes place in countries that don't have comparable laws."
Influencers were also found to be paid by tobacco companies to post content related to their products, given specific briefs, and in some cases told to cover up health warning labels on cigarette packaging in their photos.
"So what they're doing is associating cigarettes with the lifestyle that a young person would want," Matthew says.
"It's an exact duplicate of the type of advertising that we used to see on TV before it was banned, then in magazines and other places before it was banned.
"The sad reality is, this has gone on for a number of years, with no governments investigating it carefully, and with little attention brought to it. That's the reason we conducted the investigation."
Governments and regulators around the world tend to be unaware of the practice happening until they've been told about it by anti-smoking advocates, Matthew says.
Hack contacted the Federal Health department to see if they were aware that ads for tobacco products were sneaking into young Australians' feeds.
A spokeswoman for the federal Health department told Hack they have not received complaints of any Australian based tobacco suppliers using online influencers to advertise and market tobacco products to young people.
"The Department considers allegations received from the public on a case-by-case basis," the spokeswoman said.
Ballet Flat Groove Blue Jackie Women's Matthew Myers says strict governmental policy on this issue is needed for tobacco companies to back down.
"What the tobacco industry has demonstrated is they don't have a conscience. They will only do what governments tell them they must do."
Author Ange McCormack