There are concerns tobacco companies are exploiting the internet by using social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace to sell more cigarettes in clever marketing ploys.
University of Sydney PHD student Becky Freeman says “fan groups” for tobacco companies have been set up on such sites to promote products, encouraging a practice that many are trying to curtail.
She told a conference in Darwin this week the tobacco industry is abusing the internet because the web does not have the same advertising controls as print and television.
“I think what we need to have in Australia is required disclosure from tobacco companies on where they are spending their advertising money,” she said.
As these practices come to light, a study by Deakin University has found the economy would be $1 billion better off if the rate of smoking was cut by one third.
Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon says it looks like tobacco companies are trying to get around Australiaâ€™s strict regulations.
“I donâ€™t think itâ€™s good form for tobacco companies to be out trying to hook young people onto tobacco when we know the harm that it causes,” she said.
“I have asked my department to get the details, find out how much this is happening and to advise me on any actions that can be taken if thatâ€™s appropriate.”
Cancer Council Queensland community education strategies manager Deborah Gillespie says 15,500 Australians die every year due to smoking-related illnesses, with the average amount of smokers nationally standing at 16.6 per cent.
She says the internet is a forum used particularly by young people, which places them at risk when considering online advertising of tobacco products.
“Research has told us that young people are especially vulnerable to all kinds of promotion around tobacco and theyâ€™re easily influenced by marketing in any format,” she said.
Curtin University behavioural research professor Rob Donovan has been involved in tobacco research for 35 years and says there are very few avenues left for tobacco companies to promote their products.
He believes some companies are paying users to promote their products on social networking sites.
“Twitter and Myspace and those sorts of sites have been touted as the voice of the consumer and that the corporate world canâ€™t control this sort of thing,” he said.
“But whatâ€™s actually happening is companies are paying people to go on to blog sites and social networking sites and talk about their product.”
And the problem has grown in the US as well.
“The Federal Trade Commission of the United States is drafting legislation to fine people who accept money to promote a product but donâ€™t disclose that,” Professor Donovan said.
But in Australia, there is no such legislation in place.
And Professor Donovan says the solution to the issue lies in government regulation and harsh disincentives, a call mirrored by Cancer Council Queensland.
“The anti-tobacco movement and governments are supposedly committed to total restrictions on advertising, so in that case youâ€™ve got to get serious and ban all forms of advertising,” he said.
“The only thing we can do is make the penalties really severe. And what Iâ€™m talking about isnâ€™t fines and things, Iâ€™m talking about trading penalties.
“If you really want to punish a marketeer, the best punishment is they have to cease trading for a specific time in response to a breach of regulation.”
By Paul Sutherland