Tobacco industry may be using online videos to market products

In collaboration with Adfero

A new study suggests that tobacco companies may be using online video portals, such as YouTube, to get around advertising restrictions and market their products to young people.

Many tobacco companies signed up to a voluntary agreement to restrict direct advertising on websites by the end of 2002, although there is little actual regulation in place.

The industry has always denied advertising on the internet, but a new study in the journal Tobacco Control, conducted by scientists at the University of Otago in New Zealand, indicates that online videos containing tobacco brand images or words are commonplace.

Lucy Elkin and Drs George Thomson and Nick Wilson performed a YouTube search using five leading cigarette brands - Marlboro, L&M, Benson and Hedges, Winston and Mild Seven.

They then analysed a total of 163 videos which were returned for these searches, including 20 which they perceived to be "very professionally made".

The majority of these videos (71.2 per cent) contained 'pro-tobacco' content, according to the researchers, while fewer than four per cent were 'anti-tobacco'.

More than seven in ten contained tobacco brand content and had a brand name in the title, while over half showed smoking imagery.

Of the 40 Marlboro videos, 39 had the brand name in the title, while 33 appeared to be related to the brand, for example containing images of a man on a horse or the Marlboro advertising theme.

The four most prominent themes of pro-tobacco videos were celebrity/movies, sports, music and 'archive', the first three of which are popular among young internet users.

For instance, one pro-smoking music video had been viewed more than two million times.

The study authors concluded that pro-tobacco videos have a "significant presence" on YouTube.

"Since content may be removed from YouTube if it is found to breach copyright or if it contains offensive material, there is scope for the public and health organisations to request the removal of pro-tobacco content containing copyright or offensive material," they claimed.

"Governments should also consider implementing Framework Convention on Tobacco Control requirements on the internet, to further reduce such pro-tobacco content."

Robin Hewings, Cancer Research UK's tobacco policy manager, said: "Tobacco companies will use every means at their disposal to advertise their deadly products. They need to recruit new, younger smokers to replace the 100,000 people who die every year as a result of using tobacco.

"Advertising bans have been very influential in reducing the number of smokers but the tobacco industry has always looked for loopholes so it's no surprise that they may be using social media. Most smokers start in their teens and online media is ideal for targeting this age group.

"Tackling this loophole of the tobacco ad ban is complex. This research shows why cigarettes should be sold in standardised packaging. Tobacco companies would no longer have the same kind of brand images to promote on the internet or elsewhere."


  • Elkin, L., Thomson, G., & Wilson, N. (2010). Connecting world youth with tobacco brands: YouTube and the internet policy vacuum on Web 2.0 Tobacco Control DOI: 10.1136/tc.2010.035949