Digital Danger: How Online Tobacco Industry Advertising Reaches Youth

Online tobacco advertising is reaching young people every day

As more and more countries ban tobacco advertising in traditional media, tobacco companies are finding new, more insidious ways to reach potential users, including young people. These companies are turning to digital platforms.

Digital tobacco industry advertising

Digital marketing is advertising that appears in digital spaces. It’s a pop-up in the game you’re playing in an app. It’s an influencer promoting a product in your Instagram feed. It’s a seemingly organic search result on Google. It’s interactive, it’s personalized, it’s sharable and it’s everywhere. Because of that, it can be much more effective than static, analog marketing, such as print ads or commercials on TV or the radio.

The tobacco industry uses digital channels to advertise its products, including cigarettes, e-cigarettes, heated tobacco products and nicotine pouches. One of the reasons? It’s where its target market—young people—are.

Tobacco companies know that targeting young people with addictive products can result in customers for life. And while regulations are helping limit tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship in traditional media, digital marketing is a new frontier and regulations haven’t caught up. Without updated regulations, countless young people are being exposed to marketing from the tobacco industry.

What tobacco industry advertising looks like in the digital space

The tactics the tobacco industry used to get millions around the world hooked on cigarettes are being replicated online for its newer products, especially nicotine pouches, e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products. Digital advertising for these products often portrays them as fashionable, everyday lifestyle products and shows them being used by young, attractive, healthy-looking people.

Some of this digital marketing is obvious.

In 2020, researchers at Stanford published a report cataloging the digital marketing of Philip Morris International’s heated tobacco product, IQOS, on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and via influencers, brand ambassadors and, in Japan, an official LINE messenger app account. Analysis of the content on PMI’s official IQOS accounts often showed IQOS alongside coffee, alcohol and food or in the context of sports and outdoor activities, making the addictive tobacco product seem like a healthy, everyday product. In 2019, a Reuters exposé revealed that the company had violated its own marketing guidelines by working with influencers as young as 21 to promote IQOS, which resulted in PMI suspending a global social media marketing campaign.

A report from TERM, a digital media monitoring system that tracks and analyzes tobacco marketing online, found that youth in Indonesia are inundated with e-cigarette marketing on social media. The research indicates that at least half of Indonesian adolescents aged 13-15 have seen tobacco marketing online. In 8% of posts analyzed for the report, e-cigarettes were framed as glamorous. In 60% of posts, they appeared as must-have, high-tech gadgets and were framed in a party/entertainment context in 13%.

While regulations are helping limit tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship in traditional media, digital marketing is a new frontier and regulations haven’t caught up.

It’s not just Big Tobacco that’s capitalizing on digital marketing. In India, the bidi industry markets heavily on Facebook, according to another TERM report. This exposure poses a serious threat to young people: 47% of users smoked their first bidi before their 10th birthday.

The industry’s digital marketing tactics are evolving. In 2022, research from the Truth Initiative showed that Twitter posts promoting heated tobacco products such as PMI’s IQOS, Japan Tobacco International’s Ploom and British American Tobacco’s Glo doubled between 2016 and 2021, but shifted from being mostly commercial tweets (coming from or linked to commercial websites or branded promotional messages) to organic posts (not sponsored). These organic tweets amount to viral marketing and help the industry spread its messages amid advertising restrictions.

Digital tobacco company marketing doesn’t always look like an ad. Another Truth Initiative report found that 60% of the 15 most popular streaming shows among 15- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. contained depictions of tobacco. Researchers estimated this exposed around 25 million young people to tobacco imagery. A 2023 STOP report, which analyzed the amount of tobacco company branding appearing in Season 4 of the Netflix series, “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” found that 33% of minutes broadcast contained tobacco-related imagery. When British American Tobacco and Philip Morris International sponsor F1 teams, this exposure is carried far beyond the racetrack and into people’s homes around the world.

Other companies use surrogate marketing online, where tobacco product branding (or branding similar to it) is used to advertise non-tobacco products. Another TERM report found that surrogate marketing was prevalent on social media in India. Three-fourths of these ads were on Facebook and Instagram and were primarily for brands that sold smokeless tobacco.

Why digital tobacco industry advertising is exceptionally threatening

First, digital advertising is cross-border in nature. Content created in one region or country can be easily shared with users in other areas with advertising bans, thus getting around regulations meant to protect people, particularly youth.

Second, digital marketing is more ubiquitous and personalized. Online user behavior can help companies target their marketing to people they believe are primed to be interested in their product.

Third, due to the fluidity of digital marketing—ads pop up and disappear, content can be deleted, manipulated or widely shared—it is harder for regulators to monitor. When advertising activity is harder to track and document, it can be harder to enforce bans and hold advertisers accountable.

Fourth, much of the industry’s digital marketing promotes its newer products, particularly e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products. While this promotion may portray these products as safer than cigarettes, the truth is that these are new, highly addictive products whose long-term health effects remain unknown. Heated tobacco products, in particular, remain controversial, as independent research contests PMI’s claims that the product is “smoke-free.” They also may be more addictive than we know. Simply put, so much about these products remains unknown, yet they are being widely marketed around the world, including to young people.

Indeed, the most serious threat digital tobacco industry marketing poses is to the next generation. The industry’s products are being advertised to appeal to young people, and placed on the platforms young people visit the most.

Digital tobacco industry marketing is spreading and evolving quickly. New regulations must be developed to keep up with and even anticipate the industry’s advertising tactics in order to protect the next generation from being hooked by the industry on addictive and dangerous products.