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‘Tobacco products sold to children via Facebook despite ad ban’

Image credit: PA

Brands of cigars, hookah tobacco and smokeless tobacco being marketed with ‘shop now’ functionality without barriers to stop underage buyers from getting hooked, team of researchers discovers.

Children are being signposted towards addictive tobacco products via “potent” messaging on Facebook – despite policies aimed at restricting the promotion of these items.

Stamford University School of Medicine researchers found brands of cigars, hookah tobacco and smokeless tobacco being marketed and sold via “shop now” buttons attached to unpaid content, typically brand-sponsored “organic” marketing pages. 

Marlboro and Camel cigarettes were among those promoted on some pages, though it was not clear how many of these were accessible to under-18s.

Professor Robert Jackler, lead author for the study, published today in the journal BMJ Tobacco Control, said his work highlighted “loopholes” that Facebook should now close if it wants to keep tobacco promotion and sales off its social network.

Clearly, there are a lot of policies with the laudable intent of keeping tobacco promotion and sales out of Facebook. These policies are voluntary, and they’re a sign of Facebook’s commitment to social responsibility. With some two billion users and an enormous volume of daily postings, Facebook has a daunting task of policing its content,” he added.

The revelation came as Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg insisted he remains the right person to lead the company as it was revealed 87 million users could have been affected by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The company has announced changes aimed at boosting privacy and protecting users, but critics claim this merely amounts to too little too late.

Officially, Facebook requires restricted access for people under 18 from pages promoting what it calls the private sale of regulated goods or services, including tobacco. However, fewer than half the brand-sponsored pages examined by the Stamford team included an age gate” to protect vulnerable youngsters. The revelation is likely to prompt fury from anti-smoking campaigners and parenting groups.

About two-thirds of 108 company-sponsored pages examined by the Stamford research team included sale promotions such as coupons and discounts. All but one featured imagery of a tobacco product. The researchers searched for company-sponsored Facebook pages among 388 leading tobacco brands and found such pages for 108, including for more than half of the top 46 hookah tobacco brands and of the top 92 e-cigarette brands.

While they didnt identify pages for any of the 21 top traditional cigarette brands, they found that 10 of 14 online tobacco stores with company-maintained Facebook pages promoted popular cigarette brands, such as Marlboro and Camel, and included links to purchase them. Several pages showed evidence of strategies to interact with users, enable ongoing exposure to their brands and create online communities to promote tobacco products.

The study also examined the number of Facebook likes for each brand and vendor page. It found that 30 had accumulated 10,000 or more likes, with four of the pages counting more than 50,000 likes.

From an advertisers point of view, you want to make sure youve gotten someones attention, Professor Jackler said, and the fact that theyve responded approvingly means your message has gotten through with some potency.

A Facebook spokeswoman told E&T they would investigate any offending tobacco-promoting content that was brought to their attention.

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