It’s been years since the tobacco industry promised to stop luring young people to smoke cigarettes.
Philip Morris International says it is “designing a smoke-free future.” British American Tobacco, likewise, claims to be “transforming tobacco” into a safer product.
But while the Food and Drug Administration weighs plans to cut nicotine in cigarettes, making them less addictive, Big Tobacco has been making the most of the time it still has using social networks to promote its brands around the world.
Most countries, like the United States, imposed rules back in the 1970s against marketing tobacco to youths; many have banned cigarette commercials on television and radio.
So the industry that brought the world the Marlboro Man, Joe Camel and slogans like “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” has latched onto the selfie generation’s screens in a highly adaptive way that skirts the advertising rules of old.
“What they are doing is a really effective way to get around existing laws to restrict advertising to young people,” said Robert V. Kozinets, a public relations professor at the University of Southern California, who led an international team of researchers examining the tobacco industry’s use of social media.
“The most surprising thing to me was the level of sophistication of these different global networks. You get incredible campaigns, the likes of which I’ve never seen before.”
International public health organizations are pushing back against tobacco companies around the world. Earlier this month, Bloomberg Philanthropies chose three international research centers to lead a new $20 million global tobacco watchdog group called Stop (Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products), with partners in the United Kingdom, Thailand and France, that will partly focus on social marketing.
Dr. Kozinets’s work, paid for by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy group, analyzed social media in 10 countries by looking for hashtags that connect to tobacco cigarette brands.
By promising anonymity, Dr. Kozinets’s researchers were able to interview paid and unpaid “ambassadors” and “microinfluencers” to reveal the connection between the tobacco companies, their communications agencies and social media posts on Instagram and Facebook.
The results of this study, along with research in a total of 40 countries, led the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Lung Association and other public health groups to file a petition on Friday with the Federal Trade Commission against four tobacco companies.
The petition claims that Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Brands are targeting young American consumers with deceptive social media marketing in violation of federal law. The petition calls on the F.T.C. to stop the practices.
Several of the tobacco companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the petition. A spokesman for Philip Morris International said on Friday afternoon that the company had yet to review the documents and therefore could not comment.
According to Caroline Renzulli, who oversaw the project for the campaign, 123 hashtags associated with these companies’ tobacco products have been viewed 8.8 billion times in the United States alone and 25 billion times around the world.
Representatives of some of the companies said they market only to adult smokers and comply with the laws of countries where they sell their products. Jonathan Duce, a spokesman for Japan Tobacco, said company-involved events were intended “to switch existing adult smokers to our brands from those of our competitors.”
“If smokers or vapers choose to share their social activity,” he added, “it is completely their choice.”
Simon Evans, a spokesman for Imperial Brands, acknowledged that the company paid “public opinion formers” to attend and post social media content about promotional events.
“Where this is the case, however, we make it clear to them they are not to post branded content,” Mr. Evans said.
Some posts use hashtags that are closely connected to the brands: #lus or #likeus for Lucky Strikes, for example. Other posts are more subtle, featuring cigarettes but no brand name, or appealing hashtags that signal autonomy or independence: #YouDecide, #DecideTonight and #RedIsHere are popular ones affiliated with Marlboro as is #FreedomMusic for Winston.
Sometimes the posts omit the cigarettes altogether, but mention upcoming parties and other events where cigarettes are promoted in giant displays and given away. The party décor colors often match those of a specific brand.
The image below is from Indonesia, where a pack of Dunhill cigarettes is a subtle prop. After a press inquiry, BAT said they would take down the post.
Lucky Strike ambassadors received these instructions last year in Italy, according to Dr. Kozinets, and they included a note to cover up images “required to be on the packages by law”(presumably the warning labels).
In an email, Simon Cleverly, an executive with British American Tobacco, said the company’s team in Italy was reviewing the above documents, which researchers translated into English. The Like Us campaign ran from 2012 through 2017, he said.
Some themes repeated in several countries were British American Tobacco’s #TasteTheCity, which promoted Dunhill and Kent brands, and Philip Morris International’s #Newland and #Neuland, and #IDecideTo/#YouDecide.
Bruno Nastari, a Brazilian business strategist, spent more than three years working for Geometry Global, in São Paulo, according to his LinkedIn page. His accounts included British American Tobacco brands Dunhill, Lucky Strike and Kent, his page noted.
Describing the strategy he used, Mr. Nastari wrote, “Our insight was that Dunhill is the brand that transforms the city into a platform of discoveries, delivering exclusive experiences to younger audiences. Make Dunhill recognized as a modern, bold and sassy brand, thus being more appealing to the average smoker under 30 years. All this considering Brazil’s legal restrictions of cigarette advertising.”
Mr. Nastari did not respond to a reporter’s inquiry, but these notes are no longer available on LinkedIn.
The New York Times reached out to the social media posters included in this article. Several, including tico13, vikicecarelli1 and Mr. Nastari, acknowledged receipt but declined to be interviewed.
Representatives for British American said that the company believed that neither tico13 nor Polpettadiriso were posting on its behalf. She also said that the company was not aware of the Lucky Us platform.
In Uruguay, the researchers interviewed several ambassadors paid to post by Wasabi, a public relations firm working for Philip Morris International.
Corey Henry, a spokesman for Philip Morris International, said that none of the company’s marketing is aimed at recruiting new smokers, and that promotions include health warnings. He also said that no digital programs were conducted in Brazil this year.
He said the company’s Uruguay affiliate uses digital programs to “research trends among current adult smokers,” not to market cigarettes.
“As we transform our business toward a smoke-free future, we remain focused on maintaining our leadership of the combustible tobacco category outside China and the U.S.,” Mr. Henry said.
The researchers flagged posts they believe are designed to promote electronic cigarettes to youth. This post, from Romania, features iFuse, the tobacco heating product sold by British American Tobacco.
Mr. Cleverly, the spokesman for British American Tobacco, said all promotional material and events were geared toward adult smokers and were in line with local regulations in its 200 markets.
“Across the BAT Group, we are clear that social media can only be used for activities that do not involve the advertising of any of our cigarette brands,” Mr. Cleverly said in an email. “We sometimes use social media, and we also sometimes work with bloggers and brand ambassadors, for posting unbranded content (i.e. showing no tobacco brands or products), ” he said.
The petition filed by the antismoking advocacy groups asks the F.T.C. to require tobacco companies to disclose all pictures, videos and hashtags that are paid advertising or endorsements by adding some new, and likely less viral, hashtags: #Sponsored, #Promotion, or #Ad.