Tobacco, alcohol and cannabis
Tobacco and alcohol companies have long targeted young people, hoping to develop brand loyalties that will last a lifetime. Teens are also more likely to suffer both short-term and long-term risks from alcohol and tobacco. More recently, “vaping” (e-cigarettes) has become popular among these targeted groups, attracting the attention and investment of tobacco companies.
With smoking killing over 45,000 Canadians each year and thousands of others quitting, it’s crucial for the tobacco industry to continually cultivate new and younger smokers. While cigarette purchases were nearly halved between 2001 and 2017, tobacco companies are constantly seeking new methods of developing a new generation of buyers, especially in the vaping industry.
In Canada, government attempts to restrict tobacco advertising culminated in a 2007 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada that upheld federal legislation restricting tobacco advertising, banning tobacco sponsorships and requiring larger warnings on cigarette packages. This is significant when it comes to youth because studies have clearly found that non-smoking adolescents who were more aware of or receptive to tobacco advertising were more likely to become smokers later. Girls are a particular target of the tobacco industry, with brands in the U.S. like Superslims Lights and Camel No. 9 designed specifically to appeal to females.
Since the 1950s, tobacco companies have waged public relations campaigns to cast doubt on the relationship between smoking and health problems, even producing its own “industry-sponsored research entity” so that people would see it as a personal choice rather than a public health issue. Tobacco advertising also played heavily on themes of liberty and independence, especially for women and young people.
Restrictions in Canada do not necessarily prevent Canadian youth from being exposed to ‘ads’ for smoking. These more subtle media influencers include:
- Celebrities smoking on TV shows or movies (from 2004 to 2016, nearly half of the top-grossing movies in Ontario included smoking or other tobacco imagery, with 86 percent of those being rated 14A or below).
- Integrating smoking into video games (a recent study found alcohol and tobacco content in 44 percent of the 32 top-selling video games and that teens were twice as likely to have tried smoking or drinking if they had played at least one game that included tobacco or alcohol use).
- Associating smoking (and drinking) with being sexy, cool, independent and risk-taking (particularly physical risks).
- Aggressive marketing of flavoured and coloured cigarettes.
- Exposure to cigarette ads in American magazines.
The vaping industry largely borrows from the “tobacco playbook” in their advertising methods, presenting an image of vapers as being cool and rebellious, independently choosing a vaping lifestyle.
Tobacco companies have invested heavily in e-cigarette and vaping products. While the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act (2019) outlaws ads for vaping “if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the advertising could be appealing to young persons,” vaping ads reach youth in many of the same ways as other tobacco ads:
- Offering flavoured products.
- Encouraging youth who vape to see themselves as rebels or independent thinkers by portraying health concerns about vaping as fearmongering, as on Imperial Tobacco’s Facts Not Fear website.
- Creating a community effect by holding events, contests and “cloud-chasing” competitions at vaping product shops.
- Using social media advocacy groups and influencers to promote their products.
- Having vaping products appear in television, movie and video game productions.
As well, vaping is often promoted under the cover of tobacco harm reduction, disguising promotional websites such as Unsmoke.ca (whose funding by a tobacco company is only visible if you scroll all the way to the bottom) as public health campaigns that promote vaping as a way to “move towards a smoke-free future.” While vaping may be effective in helping adult smokers quit, studies have found that young people who have used e-cigarettes are three times as likely to smart smoking as those who have not. Nevertheless, some e-cigarette companies have offered scholarships to students entering college or university with essay contests that use leading questions, such as “Why do Teens Choose Vaping over Cigarettes?” Vaping company Juul offered high schools a stipend of up to $20,000 US to teach its “mindfulness” curriculum.
Young people are also exposed to tobacco-related content on the internet. While many social networks have banned or discouraged overt advertising, sites such as YouTube feature an increasing amount of user-generated content that either encourages or glamorizes smoking and vaping. Vaping companies made particularly heavy use of Instagram until 2019, when the social network banned “influencers” – users who take money to promote products in their posts – from promoting tobacco. As one influencer put it, “they target a super young profile… the people they selected are always the youngest. They look for young people that have large groups of friends so [the message] gets expanded.” Social networks can also expose youth to smoking or vaping imagery posted by their peers, which has been shown to increase the chance that they will start smoking. It can, of course, be difficult to tell whether a social network post has been paid for. Companies advise influencers not to include notices required by law to show that something is paid advertising, such as “#ad,” and encourage them to use other hashtags that users will imitate for free.
Whether they are posted by paid influencers or by youth themselves, social network posts have a strong effect on young people’s tobacco use. Despite the ban, pro-vaping content on Instagram outnumbers anti-tobacco posts by ten thousand to one. Vaping companies are even alleged to have bought ads on youth-focused websites such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.
Cannabis companies have similarly strict restrictions on advertising. In particular, they are not allowed to promote their product in any way that “there are reasonable grounds to believe could be appealing to young persons.” Online, though, while the law requires them to take “reasonable steps to ensure that the promotion cannot be accessed by a young person,” cannabis companies have advertised in movie theatres and on youth-oriented social networks such as Snapchat  as well as posting outdoor display ads that don’t mention the product but include a link to its website. Like tobacco ads, these have an impact: teens who like or follow cannabis marketing on social media are five times more likely to have used it, and those who’ve developed a brand preference are eight times more likely. Because platforms such as Instagram only allow cannabis-related posts that are “education or entertainment” rather than advertising, while companies rely heavily on influencers to promote their products, these influencers don’t identify which posts have been paid for.
Like the tobacco industry, the alcohol industry spends billions of dollars annually trying to grab the eyeballs of consumers of all ages – and for good reason. When it comes to youth, research shows that alcohol advertising normalizes drinking, changes young people’s attitudes about alcohol and is linked to early initiation to drinking and risky behaviour.
Compared to tobacco, legislation relating to alcohol advertising is less restrictive, providing more opportunities to engage youth. The U.S.-based Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) notes that studies have found that exposure to television beer advertisements on TV, alcohol ads in magazines, alcohol ads on billboards, in-store beer marketing displays, beer concessions at sporting events and alcohol use in movies increased the likelihood of drinking among young people. Other research has shown that youth are frequently exposed to alcohol ads that are designed to appeal to them.
Many of the strategies used by the tobacco industry can also be applied to alcohol advertising. The alcohol and beer industries also target youth by:
- Running ads during TV shows with a high number of young viewers, such as edgy comedies or sporting events.
- Placing ads in magazines with high adolescent readerships.
- Sponsoring rock concerts and sporting events.
- Creating and extensively marketing “alcopops”—sweetened, lightly carbonated drinks that don’t taste like alcohol, such as White Claw.
- Linking TV commercials and magazine ads with online videos and immersive ‘lifestyle’ websites that further engage young consumers.
- Using social media posts, both paid and unpaid, to reach kids who would otherwise be too young to see alcohol ads, and to normalize teen drinking.
The most significant medium for reaching youth remains television. CAMY found that youth exposure to alcohol advertising on U.S. television increased 71 percent between 2001 and 2009.In addition, TV commercials often provide direct links to websites and online social media platforms such as YouTube, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook.
The alcohol and beer industries were quick to recognize the value of the internet as an effective tool for reaching young people. The Web offers marketers a medium that is a huge part of youth culture—with the added bonus that it’s unregulated, with very little parental supervision.
Young people are actually more likely to recall having seen alcohol ads online than adults. In 2011, CAMY released a report on digital marketing by the alcohol industry that noted, among other findings, that:
- Ten leading alcohol brands have more than 16.5 million people “liking” their Facebook brand pages.
- Ten alcohol brands with youth appeal had uploaded 35,725 photos and 377 videos to their Facebook pages.
- Fans of brands with youth appeal had uploaded 15,416 photos and 98 videos to the brand Facebook pages, taking their messages viral.
- Sexually suggestive photos and photos indicating binge consumption of alcohol were on the industry’s social media sites.
- “Age affirmation” technology to control exposure of minors on these websites was meaningless.
Currently, only TikTok bans ads for alcohol advertisements, whereas YouTube, Twitter and Snapchat only ban campaigns “directed at minors or [that] imply drinking is somewhat healthy.”
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