The Role of Social Media in Influencing Smoking among Youths

Ayman T and Ameen T

Published on: 2020-03-27

Abstract

Smoking has been known to have multiple health effects which means society bears the cost of the smokers’ health costs. Tobacco consumption results in increased health costs to society. The economic costs of smoking is more than the direct health costs. Historically anti-smoking campaigners have lobbied against tobacco advertisements and smoking portrayal in movies and traditional forms of media. Social media has been known to be used for cigarette promotion. This phenomenon could result in the tobacco industry finding a way around the restrictions on advertising. They could use social media as their new marketing platform. This is worrying, especially as most social media users tend to be the youth. Studies that show a relationship between initiation of smoking among youth and images of smoking. Advertising has been identified as a major influencer for new smokers. This paper discusses the impact social media has on initiating smoking and argues that restrictions may need to be imposed on images of people smoking on social media. This paper addresses the issue of Tobacco industry potential use of social media as an ‘advertising’ platform.

Keywords

Smoking; Youth; Social media; Advertisement; Health-cost

Introduction

Smoking has been known to have multiple health effects which means society bears the cost of the smokers’ health costs. Society campaign against smoking is an uphill task due to its additive nature. A good strategy would be to eliminate or substantially reduce the rate of new smokers and eventually eliminate (if possible) new smokers. Advertising has been identified as a major influencer for new smokers. Essentially smoking has high direct costs to society arising mainly from the increased medical costs incurred by society. Then there are the additional health costs incurred by second-hand or passive smoking. The reality is that the economic costs of smoking is more than the direct health costs. These economic costs are:

  • Healthcare costs.
  • Loss of workplace productivity. This is even increased with the ban of smoking in offices as now smokers leave the office to smoke. However, the ban is necessary to reduce second-hand smoking.
  • The monetised value of premature mortality and disability.
  • Other indirect costs such as fire damage related to smoking and costs related to cleaning up after smoke. Smoking is the biggest cause of discarded litter in many cities.

Most countries impose high custom duties on tobacco products. The argument for this is that these duties will help deter people to pick-up smoking as tobacco products become expensive. It is the classic economic argument of taxing a product to reduce demand. Some economists would argue that the duties collected from tobacco consumers are much higher than the costs incurred by society from smoking. The real total society costs from smoking are difficult to quantify due to the various cost sources and inherent ambiguity. Furthermore, the emotional distress costs arising from smoking related illness and premature death are almost impossible to quantify. Historically anti-smoking campaigners have lobbied against tobacco advertisements and smoking portrayal in movies and traditional forms of media. This has indeed resulted in a ‘blanket ban’ on almost any form of advertising and/or promotion of tobacco products in most countries of the world. Some countries even block out cigarettes from (older) movies on TV (an example is True Vision of Thailand). Advertising has been identified as a major influencer for new smokers. In Singapore, as an example, smoking promotion is heavily regulated through the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) Act. All forms of advertisement and promotion is prohibited. Recently, the regulation included the requirement for the “plain packaging”. This ‘unattractive’ packaging is perceived to reduce smoking and cigarette branding. However, in spite of Singapore’s extensive long anti-smoking campaigns and laws (the authorities even banned shisha claiming it is a gateway to cigarette smoking), the country has not achieved any overwhelming success in curbing smoking. Over the last decade or so, Singapore’s smoking prevalence has hovered in the region between 12 and 14 per cent. The objective of any business is to maximise their profits. Tobacco companies are no different. They want to maximise profits and increase sales. A business that cannot promote its products via direct advertising would search for other ways and means to do indirect promotion and advertising. We have seen tobacco companies promoting their brand through clothing and fashion accessories. The unregulated social media platform provides tobacco companies with a new marketing channel. Social media is appealing to tobacco companies as social media users are mainly the target youth. Social media has been known to be used for cigarette promotion. This phenomenon could result in the tobacco industry finding a way around the restrictions on advertising. They could use social media as their new marketing platform. This is worrying, especially as most social media users tend to be the youth. Research conducted on Instagram posts found many of these posts to include smoking products. Youth have been targeted by cigarette companies who hold events inviting young Instagram influencers. The tobacco industry appear to be using social media for indirect and embedded marketing. This paper discusses the impact social media has on initiating smoking and argues that restrictions may need be imposed on smoking images on social media.

Literature Review

The impact that advertising through mainstream traditional media has on increasing smoking have been extensively researched. Prabandar and Dewi found that tobacco advertisements have a greater impact on non-smoking youths than existing smokers, as it encourages non-smoking youths to take up smoking [1]. This research was conducted in Indonesia. The study is relevant as little similar studies done in South East Asia and Indonesia has not completely banned tobacco advertising. Indonesia is the only Asia-Pacific country where tobacco advertising promotion and sponsorship (TAPS) still occurs. A number of studies conducted have concluded that youngsters that view movies with scenes of smoking are more prone to start smoking themselves (for example see) [2-5]. This association between exposure to movie smoking and behaviour has been interpreted as evidence of a causal effect. Furthermore, the decline in movie smoking coincided with declines in adolescent smoking in the United States [6]. Tanski found that exposure to smoking in movies tend to have a stronger effect on white youths who are generally deemed to be of lower risk, are ambivalent towards smoking, and whose parents are non-smokers. That study results showed that whites responded to white and black movie characters smoking while blacks responded to black movie characters only [7]. The black adolescent behaviour is interesting in that it shows the adolescent responding to characters they fell a level of association or a level of idolising with. Many adolescents have that sort of sentiments towards Instagram influencers. It would seem that if an Instagram influencer was to consciously post photos smoking it will influence the adolescent to perceive smoking as a cool thing to do, This association implies that with the decline in movie smoking, tobacco promoters could turn to social media to replace the movie causal effect. Hence, the third point in this paper is that previous research has shown the influence of movies on youth picking up smoking. Social media videos, such as YouTube, provide an alternative marketing channel. Furthermore, Instagram influencers could be viewed as the ‘new proxy’ for movie stars. Social media is seen as the new era marketing channel Social media is more far-reaching than mainstream media. It has a global reach. Furthermore, it is much less regulated. The use of social media (in its’ different forms) as the new channel for promoting smoking has the potential to undo the achievement of anti-smoking lobbyist to ban tobacco promotion. Social media has been known to be used for cigarette promotion. This phenomenon could result in the tobacco industry finding a way around the restrictions on advertising. They could use social media as their new marketing platform. This is worrying, especially as most social media users tend to be the youth. Research conducted on Instagram posts found many of these posts to include smoking products. The research revealed that most of these images were of women and almost half had a cigarette brand or logo. Instagram is known to be popular among women. Youth have been targeted by cigarette companies who hold events inviting young Instagram influencers. These events have taken place in countries like Egypt, Brazil, Indonesia and Italy. The Instagram influencers would then post pictures of themselves attending these events. The question is does images/videos of people smoking have any impact on smoking habits and smoking initiation? What if these ‘people’ are friends and acquittances? What if these ‘people’ are Instagram influencers? by definition Instagram influencers influence their follower’s behaviour. Solis was of the view that social media now allows peer decision making influence [8]. Instagram influencers tend to have a large number of followers whom share similar interests [9]. Businesses are more and more using influencers to promote their products in general. Influencers are likely to influence their peers [10]. Madkour found that cigarette advertisements had significant influence on male youth smoking [11]. Dahal study included socio-demographic variables and found media to be a significant variable [12]. Kulsolkookiet studied use of social media to change smoking behaviour [13]. The study used experimental research to investigate using social media to curb smoking. The study looked at multimedia messaging using text only, text and pictures, and videos. the sample was 90 who were studied on each of the three messaging on before and after; hence a total experimental sample of 270. the results of this study suggest that participants have less favourable attitudes towards smoking and more perceived behavioural control of smoking after they are exposed to anti-smoking multimedia campaigns. Anti-smoking messages disseminated through Line instant messaging applications are effective in curbing smoking among youths. The results support the effect of multimedia on attitudes towards smoking. These results are in line with previous studies (for example see) [14,15]. This issue is important as the anti-smoking lobby strategy to curb smoking is focused on reducing smoking pick-up rates by the youth. Tobacco companies using social media to induce the youth to pick up smoking could be detrimental to the success of the anti-smoking movement. This is multiplied if the social media indeed has an impact on the youth smoking habits, especially initiation. Society, in the form of policy makers, have decided that smoking need to be curbed. The addiction nature of smoking makes quitting an uphill task. The focus of the anti-smoking campaign had by large been to reduce the rate of new smokers. The main source of new smokers are the youth. What we have been experiencing in the last couple of decades or so is the continuous ‘tug-of-war’ between the tobacco companies trying to induce new smokers from the youth and the anti-smoking regulators trying to reduce rate of new smokers.

Multimedia effect can work both ways; as anti-smoking messages influence attitude towards smoking so will pro-smoking messages. Advertisers have always used indirect messaging and subtle messages to promote their products. Embedded marketing techniques are common. Smoking promoters can use multimedia to give an image that promotes smoking. A clear example is the well-established image of lighting a cigarette after sex. This has even been used in Hollywood movies to indicate that the person just had sex (especially in the olden days when sex scenes were more tabooed than smoking scenes). Scenes of beautiful glamourous people smoking could have an impact on viewer’s perception of smoking behaviour. The campaign for tobacco free kids with 8 other leading public health and medical groups have filled a petition to the United States Federal Trade Commission dated 24th August 2018 against 4 tobacco companies requesting for investigative and enforcement action to stop deceptive advertising online. The petition is the start of the anti-smoking lobbyist taking action against the tobacco industry latest promotional strategies; the use of social media. The petition details highlight various images of Instagram influencers promoting smoking [16,17].

Concluding Remarks

This paper has put forward the argument that smoking has high detrimental costs to society and hence need to be curbed. The argument for a total ban on cigarettes is difficult to implement due to its addiction nature and the fact that cigarette smoking is entrenched in society. This entrenchment argument was used by the Singapore authorities in defending their position in banning shisha smoking but not cigarette smoking. High duties are imposed on tobacco products and some would argue that the revenue collected outweighs the costs. This argument does not take into account the emotional costs involved. The second argument put forward is that the focus in reducing smoking was to reduce the new smokers’ rate. This means a focus on the youth to discourage them. At the same time the tobacco companies focus on the youth would be to induce them to be their new customers. Some might argue it is unethical. However, there is an argument that every business tries to increase its market. The argument is that if a business or product is significantly detrimental to society then it should be banned; as is the case for recreational drugs such as marijuana. As long as it is a legal business then they should be allowed to expand their sales. Tobacco is not the only regulated product. Another example is prostitution. These are undesirable products from society point of view. It is unfortunate that these undesirable products are entrenched in society. Society regulates these products to reduce consumption. A total ban could result in ‘underground’ activities. That was the case when liquor was banned in United States of America in early 20th century. The focus on youth and the control of advertisements and promotions led to the third argument of social media used as the new marketing channel. The argument put forward was that social media influences youth to pick up smoking and evidence exists that tobacco companies were indeed using social media to promote smoking. Human right advocates would argue that the current anti-smoking actions are an infringement on the rights of smokers and is discriminately against one group of citizens. Furthermore, this infringement of liberties argument also extends to social media users. Governments are increasingly becoming the ‘big brother’. People who claim a right to smoke usually rely on one of two arguments: (1) that smoking is a personal liberty specially protected by the Due Process Clause, 13 or (2) that the Equal Protection Clause 14 extends special protection to smokers as a group. However, courts in the USA has ruled that there is no constitutional right to smoke. The counter argument against the right to smoke is that right is not taken away completely. It is same as the right to be naked. You have all right to be naked in your own home but not in the street. The flip side is also the right for non-smokers to have smoke free air. Tobacco promotion via social media channels has opened a new problem. Research cited has shown the potential influence of social media on youth picking up smoking. If tobacco promotion via social media channels is left unchecked and unregulated it could result in the derailment of all the previous efforts of the anti-smoking regulations. It is indeed high time that tobacco images on social media be regulated.

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