Health organisations have expressed alarm at how the internet is being used to promote smoking.
Tobacco companies deny using the online world to market their brands, but there is mounting concern that social networking sites are making smoking glamorous, especially among young people.
British American Tobacco (BAT) has had to conduct a damage limitation exercise after it emerged several employees had established fan sites on Facebook for the company’s Lucky Strike and Dunhill brands, apparently without the company’s knowledge.
Ash, the anti-smoking group, said BAT also hired online marketing firm, iKineo, to promote the Lucky Strike brand in South Africa. iKineo boasted on its website it had “extended the Lucky Strike campaign into the digital space, using it to mobilise a powerful underground movement to advocate the brand”.
Other tobacco companies have also looked to the internet. Thousands of smokers – who had to confirm they were over 18 simply by clicking on an online box – have accessed a website allowing them to design packets for new blends of Camel cigarettes, made by the American firm RJ Reynolds (RJR).
The exercise created a range of new packets that extended the brand and sent it up internet search engine rankings.
The market research exercise did not breach rules prohibiting tobacco advertising, but Cancer Research UK’s tobacco control manager, Robin Hewings, said: “The industry has a history of searching for loopholes which allow its lethal products to target young people.”
In 1997 RJR withdrew its Joe Camel cartoon figure from its advertising campaigns after the American Medical Association published a report claiming that young children could recognise him more easily than Mickey Mouse. Now a Facebook search for “Joe Camel” brings up more than 25 sites dedicated to the character.
YouTube also carries old cigarette adverts that would fall foul of the comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising, recognised by 168 countries if they were aired on television.
An analysis of 163 YouTube tobacco brand-related videos, carried out by researchers at the University of Otago, found 71 per cent featured “pro-tobacco content”. Many clips are highly sophisticated. One “freeze frame” video shows a Marlboro packet being turned into a Transformer robot similar to those in the film.
Internal industry papers, released as a result of legal action, reveal tobacco firms have been experimenting with the internet as a marketing weapon for years. US tobacco company Lorillard ran an online competition allowing young people to vote on their favourite music videos. The competition was ostensibly designed to promote the company’s slogan “Tobacco is Whacko if You are a Teen” – a message that has been attacked by anti-tobacco campaigners for implying that smoking was acceptable among adults.
Fresh concerns about tobacco firms’ use of cyberspace were raised last week when it emerged the annual Global Tobacco Networking Forum had held a workshop on social media for thousands of industry delegates.
Professor John Britton, a member of the UK’s Royal College of Physicians’ tobacco advisory group, said the role of the internet in promoting smoking was a concern.
“Research has shown that, while adults buy the cheaper brands, children choose the most heavily marketed. As an organisation trying to take smoking out of children’s lives, we have to look for ways of limiting children’s web exposure to tobacco marketing.”