Background Facebook has a comprehensive set of policies intended to inhibit promotion and sales of tobacco products. Their effectiveness has yet to be studied.
Methods Leading tobacco brands (388) were identified via Nielsen and Ranker databases and 108 were found to maintain brand-sponsored Facebook pages. Key indicators of alignment with Facebook policy were evaluated.
Results Purchase links (eg, ‘shop now’ button) on brand-sponsored pages were found for hookah tobaccos (41%), e-cigarettes (74%), smokeless (50%) and cigars (31%). Sales promotions (eg, discount coupons) were present in hookah tobacco (48%), e-cigarette (76%) and cigar (69%) brand-sponsored pages. While conventional cigarettes did not maintain brand-sponsored pages, they were featured in 80% of online tobacco vendors’ Facebook pages. The requirement for age gating, to exclude those <18 from viewing tobacco promotion, was absent in hookah tobacco (78%), e-cigarette (62%) and cigar (21%) brand-sponsored pages and for 90% of online tobacco stores which promote leading cigarette brands (eg, Marlboro, Camel). Many of the brand-sponsored tobacco product pages had thousands of ‘likes’.
Conclusions It is laudable that Facebook has policies intended to interdict tobacco promotion throughout its platform. Nevertheless, widespread tobacco promotion and sales were found at variance with the company’s policies governing advertising, commerce, page content and under age access. Vetting could be improved by automated screening in partnership with human reviewers.
- tobacco industry
- social marketing
- advertising and promotion
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Social media has a potent influence in shaping adolescent attitudes and behaviour. As of mid-2017, Facebook has over 2 billion users around the world.1 In the USA, some 5.8 million teens aged 13–17 use Facebook, 65% of whom report daily use.2 Brands increasingly use social media, most prominently Facebook, to promote their products to youth.3 Facebook collects a wide array of personal data points for each user.4 This plethora of data allows advertisers to target users based on a wide variety of criteria including gender, location, racial ethnicity, popular culture preferences, hobbies, and so on. Paid promotion including ‘sponsored advertisements’ and ‘boosted posts’ allows brands to enhance the brand’s visibility to specific audiences.5 Unpaid or ‘organic’ content appearing as Newsfeed on the brand’s Facebook page to create a community of interested users is an alternative, and often complimentary, approach.6 The goal of this study is to characterise tobacco promotional activities which appear on Facebook and to evaluate the degree to which this activity is compliant with Facebook’s published policies.
Facebook’s Advertising Policies (as of February 2018)
As an expression of their commitment to social responsibility, Facebook maintains a comprehensive set of policies designed to exclude tobacco promotion from its platform.7–12 Some of these are clearly articulated policies, while other practices are documented by Facebook’s advice to users on its Community Help feature.11 The policies span numerous aspects of Facebook, including advertising, commerce, content and external links (box 1). Facebook’s paid Advertising Policy is explicit: ‘Ads must not promote the sale or use of tobacco products and related paraphernalia’7 (online supplementary figure 1). Facebook’s Prohibited Content Policy is both explicit and comprehensive, encompassing: ‘tobacco or tobacco-related products, including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, tobacco pipes, hookahs, hookah lounges, rolling papers, vaporized delivery devices and electronic cigarettes.’8 This policy also includes a provision prohibiting images of tobacco products with illustrations of e-cigarettes and hookah demonstrating non-compliance.
Facebook policies which restrict tobacco promotion (as of February 2018)
Advertising Policy—prohibited content 7 8:
Policy: Ads must not promote the sale or use of tobacco products and related paraphernalia.
Tobacco or tobacco-related products, including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobaccos, tobacco pipes, hookahs, hookah lounges, rolling papers, vaporised delivery devices and electronic cigarettes.
Images of tobacco products not permitted.
Blogs or groups connecting people with tobacco-related interests (are permitted), as long as the service does not lead to the sale of tobacco or tobacco-related products.
‘Buy cigarettes and e-cigarettes here today!’
Scope: The Advertising Policies apply to ads and commercial content served by or purchased through Facebook, on or off the Facebook services.
Commerce Policy 9:
Policy: Sale of the following is prohibited on Facebook: tobacco items and related paraphernalia.
Scope: Items, products or services sold on Facebook must comply with our Community Standards as well as the Commerce Policies.
Page Terms—age gate requirement 10:
Policy: Pages promoting the private sale of regulated goods or services (including firearms, alcohol, tobacco or adult products) must restrict access to a minimum age of 18.
Scope: Applies to all pages on Facebook.
Website links 11:
Policy: If the website that is linked to the Page have any tobacco or a related paraphernalia will cause the ads to be disapproved.
Audience Network Policy 12:
Policy: Apps and sites must not promote the sale or use of tobacco products and related paraphernalia.
Scope: All iOS and Android apps with targeted ads.
Facebook’s Commerce Policy prohibits sale of ‘tobacco items and related paraphernalia.’9 Facebook’s Prohibited Content Policy states: ‘blogs or groups connecting people with tobacco-related interests, as long as the service does not lead to the sale of tobacco or tobacco related products’ are permissible.8 While the phrase could be argued to possess a degree of ambiguity, grammatically the term ‘tobacco related interests’ likely refers to Facebook users who share common interest rather than ‘tobacco interest’ meaning a producer or vendor.
Facebook Pages are a primary vehicle by which brands promote their products. Facebook’s Page Terms Policy requires an underage gate for restricted goods: ‘Pages promoting the private sale of regulated goods or services (including firearms, alcohol, tobacco, or adult products) must restrict access to a minimum age of 18.’ 10 The term ‘private sale’ possesses some ambiguity. A common use of the term means an unadvertised sale between individuals not open to the general public. Clearly this definition would not seem to be applicable to Facebook pages viewable by the general public. Perhaps they are referring to private Facebook groups, but such entities can have thousands of members and may be open to any and all who choose to join.
The wording ‘private sale’ of Facebook’s Page Term Policy may or may not be interpreted to apply to the public sale of tobacco products by commercial entities (eg, tobacco companies promoting their brands or online vendors of multiple products). It would be hard to justify differing policies for tobacco sales by individual Facebook users as opposed to by commercial interests if the putative goal is to impede tobacco sales, especially to <18-year-old users. The policy requiring an <18 age gate for ‘private sales’ of tobacco products on pages would seem at variance with other Facebook policies. In August 2017, Facebook’s Community Standard Policy on ‘Regulated Goods’ stated: ‘We prohibit any attempts by private individuals to purchase, sell, or trade’ tobacco products.13 In February 2018, this particular provision has been removed from the Community Standards. However, Facebook’s Commerce Policy still states: ‘Items, products or services sold on Facebook must comply with our Community Standards as well as the Commerce Policies… Sale of the following is prohibited on Facebook: Tobacco items and related paraphernalia.’9 Unlike Facebook’s Advertising Policy, which clearly prohibits paid promotion (advertisements and page boosting) by tobacco companies, the Commerce Policy makes no such distinction. Its wording implies that it encompasses all offers for sale of tobacco products across the entire Facebook platform. These seeming incongruities illustrate that Facebook tobacco policies, likely developed by different parts of the organisation, are at times inconsistent.
A potential loophole to Facebook’s policies would be the promotion of a tobacco product through brand stretching via non-tobacco logo products or ostensibly non-commercial postings such as holiday greetings. A comment on Facebook’s Advertiser Help Center suggests that this type of trademark extension would not be allowed in paid advertisements.14 By contrast, Facebook’s Commerce Policy allows ‘Apparel featuring a tobacco brand logo’15 (online supplementary figure 2).
Facebook also restricts external links to sites promoting tobacco. Web links on Facebook pages are restricted: ‘If the website that you have attached to your Page has tobacco products on it, your ads will be disapproved.’11 Facebook’s Audience Network Policy covers its advertisements extended to other platforms. This prohibits extension to apps and sites which ‘promote the sale or use of tobacco products.’12
Taken together, Facebook’s advertising and content policies express the clear intent to prohibit tobacco companies from using Facebook to promote their products.
Selection of tobacco brands for inclusion
Nielsen’s Convenience Track system tracks product sales from a representative sample of different types of convenience stores.16 Sales are tracked by a combination of electronic checkout counters and field auditors. The latest Nielsen data set (2015–2016) was used to select top tobacco brands in each tobacco product category (cigarettes, e-cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco brands). These data represent over $70 billion in annual tobacco product sales in convenience stores.17 The study included up to 150 of the products Nielsen tracks per category (eg, they track >300 cigar brands) in each tobacco product category except for cigarettes in which the top 11 premium and top 10 discount brands were included. Since hookah tobacco products are not tracked by Nielsen, we identified a list of top brands through an online ‘Ranker’ database.18 Ranker is a company which manages a large crowd-sourced database of lists and opinion data.
Brand-sponsored pages and online tobacco vendors
Data for this study were collected over the months of June and July 2017. Two research assistants at Stanford, California, visited the tobacco brand’s official website, determined if a Facebook link was present, and followed the link to the relevant page. Unlike other tobacco products on the market, conventional cigarette brands did not maintain brand-sponsored Facebook pages. To evaluate whether cigarettes were promoted in non-brand-sponsored Facebook pages, the search was expanded to include online vendors who offer many tobacco companies products for sale. To identify these purveyors, Google searches were conducted using the terms: cigarette vendor, cigarette store, cigarette shop and buy cigarettes. The first page of results was compiled from each search and the top 10 online purveyors were selected. Repeating this method on Facebook yielded an additional four online tobacco purveyors.
We collected data on measures concerning tobacco sales promotion and age restrictions which had most direct relevance to Facebook policies. Criteria measured included purchase links (eg, ‘shop now’ button), sales promotions (eg, Memorial Day Sale, discount coupon) and images of tobacco products. We also recorded the number of likes for each tobacco brand Facebook page. Age gates prohibit minors <18 years of age from entering the tobacco brand’s Facebook page. To determine the presence and effectiveness of age gates, we created four Facebook accounts of men of ages 13, 17, 18 and 21.
The Nielsen database yielded 379 candidate tobacco brands. These included 146 cigars, 98 e-cigarettes, 114 smokeless tobaccos and 21 conventional cigarette brands. The Ranker method yielded 49 hookah tobacco brands. Forty brands were excluded because we could not locate an official brand website (via Google search), resulting in a study cohort of 388 brands (140 cigars, 92 e-cigarettes, 89 smokeless tobaccos, 21 conventional cigarettes and 46 hookah tobacco brands). Fourteen online cigarette vendors were identified.
Of the 388 tobacco brands, 108 (28%) maintained brand-sponsored Facebook pages (figure 1). These included cigars (29), e-cigarettes (50), hookah tobaccos (27) and smokeless tobaccos (2). The highest prevalence of brand-sponsored pages among tobacco products were hookah tobaccos (59%) and e-cigarettes (54%) followed by cigars (21%) and smokeless (2%) (online supplementary figures 3 and 4). Conventional cigarettes had no brand-sponsored pages.
Purchase links, sales promotions, images of tobacco products or use
These key indicators of alignment with Facebook policy were evaluated in the 108 brands with sponsored Facebook pages (figure 2). Purchase links were found on 11 (41%) hookah tobaccos, 37 (74%) e-cigarettes, 9 (31%) cigars and 1 (50%) smokeless. Sales promotions included special sales (eg, Father’s Day sale), coupons (eg, 2 for 1) and offers of discount (eg, $2 off). Such promotions were present for 13 (48%) hookah tobaccos, 38 (76%) e-cigarettes, 20 (69%) cigars and 0 (0%) smokeless tobacco. Tobacco product imagery was noted in 27 (100%) hookah tobaccos, 49 (98%) e-cigarettes, 29 (100%) cigars and 2 (100%) smokeless tobaccos.
The required age gates were present in only 48 of the 108 (44%) tobacco brand-sponsored Facebook pages. These comprised 6 (22%) hookah tobaccos, 19 (38%) e-cigarettes, 23 (79%) cigars and 0 (0%) smokeless (figure 3). Age gates restricting individuals <18 were present in 5 (19%) hookah tobaccos, 17 (34%) e-cigarettes, 12 (41%) cigars and 0 (0%) smokeless tobacco. Age gates excluding individuals <21 were present in 1 (4%) hookah tobacco, 2 (4%) e-cigarettes and 11 (38%) cigars.
Among the 108 tobacco brand-sponsored Facebook pages, 14 (13%) received <500 likes, 13 (12%) 500–999 likes, 41 (38%) 1000–4999 likes, 10 (9%) 5000–9999 likes, 26 (24%) 10 000–49 999 likes and 4 (4%) >50 000 likes (online supplementary table 1). For the 10 online cigarette vendors, 6 (60%) received <500 likes, 1 (10%) 500–999 likes and 2 (20%) 1000–4999 likes. The average and range of likes were: hookah tobaccos (4913; 87–37 119), e-cigarettes (7572; 154–73 837), cigars (18 022; 107–61 239), smokeless (2311; 758–2865) and online cigarette vendors (761; 15–3503).
Online tobacco vendors
Among online tobacco stores, 10 of 14 (71%) maintained Facebook pages selling cigarettes (online supplementary figure 5). Of the 11 traditional premium cigarette brands examined (eg, Marlboro, Newport, American Spirit), 10 (91%) were promoted on the vendor’s Facebook page. Of the 10 discount cigarette brands examined (eg, Pall Mall, L&M, Pyramid), only 2 (20%) were promoted on the Facebook pages of these online tobacco vendors. Among the 10 online tobacco vendors studied, only 1 (10%) had an age gate present.
Virtually all tobacco companies have a presence online with most maintaining brand websites, and many even offer their products for sale directly to consumers. These tend to portray tobacco use in a positive light and increasingly engage users with interactive features.19 Many also possess a youth orientation as shown in an analysis of e-cigarette websites with youth targeting described via images or claims of modernity (73%), increased social status (44%), enhanced social activity (32%), romance (31%) and use by celebrities (22%).20
In recent years, social media advertising has become a progressively more prevalent tool used by tobacco marketers.21 22 An analysis of 365 e-cigarette videos on YouTube found that 85% were sponsored by e-cigarette brands and these were viewed by 1.2 million youth under <18.23 In a study of nearly a half a million Texas middle and high school students, 52.5% reported exposure to tobacco-related social media.24 Exposure to tobacco promotion on social media among youth aged 11–18 was correlated with a more favourable attitude towards tobacco.25 A study of undergraduate college students between the ages of 18 and 25 years found that greater prevalence of e-cigarette use in an individual’s social network was associated with a more positive ‘smoking experience’.26 One study found that youth exposure to tobacco depictions on social media better predicts smoking tendency than exposure on television and movies.27 While this observation needs to be verified by others, it is remarkable given the abundant research demonstrating the potent influence of television and movies on smoking behaviour.
Active engagement with online tobacco material (eg, watching video, subscribing to newsletter, Facebook likes, retweets) was found in 2.9 million youth aged 12–17.28 Higher levels of online engagement were associated with greater susceptibility to use a tobacco product among tobacco never users as well as current and past tobacco users. A longitudinal study of 1742 never e-cigarette users reported that exposure to e-cigarette advertisements on social media had an effect on subsequent use of e-cigarettes.29 Social media has also been exploited in marketing alcoholic beverages with a transition in emphasis from exposure to engagement noted over recent years. An examination of the marketing of 20 alcohol brands on Facebook over a 2-year period found that the number of ‘fans’ increased by 52%.30 Another study of alcohol brand activity on Facebook found that companies engaged consumers in the co-creation of content that contributed to the brand’s marketing objectives.31
Evidence shows that the tobacco industry exploits social media as a means of circumventing advertising restrictions. In countries such as Australia where tobacco advertising to consumers is prohibited, Facebook has been shown to be a leading vehicle for tobacco marketers to circumvent the intended ban.32 Tobacco marketers sometimes surreptitiously pose as users on social media platforms. Employees of British American Tobacco created fan pages for their products, joined pages as fans and posted pictures of their products on Facebook.33 As barriers to regulatory solutions of youth online/social media tobacco exposure are substantial, focus upon enriching antismoking messages via these channels may offer the most effective countermeasure.34
The key observation in our study is that tobacco marketing is highly prevalent on Facebook and many such activities appear to be at variance with Facebook policy. Brand-sponsored pages by tobacco marketers are widespread on Facebook and these often include offers to sell tobacco products. Many also allow access to prohibited content by underage users. The brand-sponsored tobacco pages are dominated by e-cigarettes, hookah and cigars with the notable absence of traditional cigarettes. Images of tobacco products were nearly universal while a purchase link (eg, ‘shop now’) and/or sale promotion (eg, discount coupon) were quite frequent. While traditional cigarette brands did not maintain brand-sponsored pages, the Facebook pages of online tobacco vendors routinely sold cigarettes including leading brands such as Marlboro, Camel, Newport and American Spirit.
Because tobacco and alcohol marketers are prohibited by Facebook policy from paid promotion (eg, advertising, boosting) brands increasingly pursue an ‘organic’ and ‘conversational’ content strategy to engage users.30 Ongoing postings of fresh material on their brand-sponsored pages such as memes, sponsored events, product innovations and contests attract ‘likes’ with the goal of creating communities with shared interest in their wares who will snowball their message to friends. Such material is targeted to demographics most likely to use their products (eg, teens and young adults, adult smokers). The large number of likes on tobacco brand-sponsored Facebook pages observed in our study illustrates the successful implementation of this strategy.
Facebook’s policy requires age gates excluding those <18 for pages offering tobacco products for sale. Our study showed that age gates were absent from a large proportion of pages for e-cigarette and hookah vendors as well as online vendors of numerous tobacco products. While the legal age for tobacco sales in Europe and most US states is 18, in California (where this study was conducted) and four other US states (New Jersey, Oregon, Hawaii, Maine) the age is 21. With Facebook’s geolocation ability, it would be reasonable for their policy to conform to location regulations.
To police its content, Facebook relies on multiple methods, including automated algorithms, human screeners and user complaints. With some 2 billion users and enormous volumes of postings each day, Facebook has a daunting task in enforcing its policies.35 Our results show that Facebook policing of its tobacco policies is notably porous with a large volume of promotional materials escaping scrutiny. By searching Facebook’s ‘Help Community’ feature for comments relating to tobacco, it is clear from objections raised by would-be tobacco marketers that, at least in some instances, tobacco-related material is being excluded.11 The results of our study indicate that current screening methods are largely ineffective. Numerous comments on the Community Help feature seek to alert Facebook about the presence of tobacco material. These notifications are referred to an online feature to report a possible violation of Facebook policies. It seems clear that Facebook’s current method of inhibiting tobacco promotion relies excessively on people reporting tobacco promotion. It is of interest that the Help Community includes numerous protests from e-cigarette advocates arguing that promotion of vapour products should be permitted. Petition drives have been organised in an effort to convince Facebook to reverse its e-cigarette prohibition.36
This study has several limitations. Identification of tobacco brands via the Nielsen database, which tracks sales in convenience store channels, favours major national brands over smaller regional and online only ones. Limitations of our interface with Facebook imply that we may not have revealed some aspects of tobacco promotion on the platform. Our study is confined to public posts and may not detect ‘dark posts’ which are unpublished posts which do not appear on the brand’s page, but may be selectively configured to customise their message according to individual Facebook user’s characteristics. As the four profiles we created for this study frequented a large number of tobacco-related Facebook pages, it is probable that they were profiled to an unknown extent and thus the material we collected may have included targeted material. In assessing the popularity of tobacco brand-sponsored pages, we could not determine the potential effect of brand influencers who are often ‘social stars’ with a large number of followers. The age gating data may not represent actual user age as many underage users create profiles older than their actual age.37 This means that the proportion of underage youth being exposed is likely higher than our data would indicate. The four Facebook profiles created for our study covered a number of ages (13, 17, 18, 21) but all were male and located within California. Because Facebook tobacco pages may have content targeted by user characteristics such as gender, location (national, urban vs rural, ethnic predominance) and previous social media use patterns demographically different users may have encountered a different spectrum of tobacco promotion.
An alternative approach to our methodology of tracing tobacco promotion from the perspective of the individual user would be measuring interaction among large groups of users of varying interest. This would better capture relationships which flow from the algorithmic and participatory nature of social media.38 An automated, large-scale analysis of a substantial data set of user interactions among tobacco social media revealed that tobacco-related content grows exponentially while there is linear growth for the tobacco control group.21 In addition, the antitobacco community is more tightly connected, while the much larger protobacco community is sparsely connected.
Much attention has focused recently on Facebook’s efforts to manage inappropriate content such as hate speech and fake news. Following a number of highly publicised offensive postings, Facebook announced in early 2017 plans to expand its content management team by 3000 people, to a total of 7500 people.39 As identification of hate speech often necessitates human judgement, this makes it difficult to use automated algorithms.40 As of 2017, Facebook removes some 66 000 hate speech posts each week.41
By comparison to identification of rhetorically ambiguous concepts such as hate speech, which necessitate human judgement, enforcing Facebook’s tobacco policies would seem a much more manageable task. It seems reasonable that Facebook could invest engineering and/or human content managerial resources in developing an automated screening algorithm to detect tobacco product brand-sponsored pages. These pages contain readily identifiable features, both text and graphic, revealing their origin and intent. Distinguishing affinity groups (eg, those who happen to share a passion for cigars) from marketers is more challenging. To make such distinctions, machine learning algorithms working in partnership with human reviewers would be needed to improve vetting. Automated screening is especially important as it is not difficult for vendors to create new Facebook identities and use them to relaunch their banned content.
While Facebook’s tobacco policies are comprehensive in scope, they are at times ambiguous and occasionally contradictory. Nevertheless, it is laudable that they have policies intended to interdict tobacco promotion throughout its platform. Voluntary efforts by social media platforms are especially valuable given the regulatory challenges of constraining online tobacco promotion.34 Facebook’s commitment to continuous improvement in sustaining their guidelines (‘We are always working to get better at evaluating this content and enforcing our standards’) reflects their core commitment to community.13 Our hope is that realising the extent to which tobacco promotion evades their efforts to restrict it will encourage Facebook to undertake an effort to establish more comprehensive enforcement of their well-intentioned policies.
What this paper adds
Facebook has in place a series of policies intended to prohibit marketing and promotion of tobacco products through its platform.
Widespread tobacco promotion and sales occurs through brand-sponsored pages.
Many tobacco brand-sponsored pages have thousands of ‘likes’.
Pages promoting the private sale of tobacco products are supposed to restrict access to a minimum age of 18, but this is inconsistently enforced.
Contributors RKJ conceived the project and is the primary author of the paper. VYL conducted most of the Facebook surveys. RALC surveyed the online tobacco vendors. DR assisted with the data analysis and manuscript editing.
Funding Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising.
Disclaimer Calculated (or Derived) based on data from The Nielsen Company (US), LLC and marketing databases provided by the Kilts Center for Marketing Data Center at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The conclusions drawn from the Nielsen data are those of the researchers and do not reflect the views of Nielsen. Nielsen is not responsible for, had no role in, and was not involved in analyzing and preparing the results reported herein.
Competing interests None declared.
Patient consent Not required.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.