Tobacco companies have turned to video-sharing website YouTube to market their products, new research from Otago University has revealed.
This is despite the obligation in 168 countries to ban all mainstream tobacco advertising, under a World Health Organisation (WHO) agreement which went into effect in 2005.
The study looked at the video results for a YouTube search for five leading cigarette brands and found at least 71 per cent of these videos had content which was supportive of smoking.
These videos included content and themes that would appeal to youth, including the use of celebrities, movies, sports and music.
The videos also normalised smoking.
Researcher Dr George Thomson said the problem was not YouTube users deliberately seeking out tobacco advertisements, but rather users “wandering” through the site, and finding pro-tobacco material related to videos they were interested in.
“They go looking for Harley Davidsons, and they will find Marlboro, right up there.”
Some videos had been viewed by up to two million people, he said.
Lead researcher Lucy Elkin said that while tobacco companies denied advertising on the internet, the significant brand presence on YouTube was consistent with indirect marketing activity by tobacco companies or their proxies.
“The internet is ideal for tobacco marketing, being largely unregulated and viewed by millions of people world-wide every day,” she said.
The study also found that while YouTube provides for the removal of material it defines as offensive, it does not currently consider pro-tobacco content as grounds for removal of specific video clips.
However, public and health organisations could request that YouTube removes pro-tobacco videos containing material considered offensive under present rules, Elkin said.
Governments could also implement the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control requirements on controlling tobacco marketing on the internet.
But Thomson said in New Zealand, the government had shown it was not willing to put the legal resources to deal with examples of indirect tobacco marketing.
There was evidence that tobacco companies in New Zealand had been using dance party events to promote their products, but the government had not acted, Thomson said.
“If it’s hard, then the government is often hesitant about investing in enforcing the law,” he said.
The study was supported by funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand,