11.11 Internet promotion

Just as tobacco company marketers have infiltrated youth-friendly venues, it is conceivable that they have a presence on youth-friendly websites. While the Internet is being used to sell cigarettes,1 its largely unregulated status holds much potential as a vehicle for both promoting smoking and advertising tobacco products. The 2008 US National Cancer Institute monograph on the role of the media in promoting and preventing tobacco use highlights the lack of research in the area of internet-based tobacco advertising and promotion.2 The Internet is an ideal platform for tobacco companies to pursue their promotional ambitions and to exploit the unprecedented opportunities that interactive cyberspace provides to marketers.3 The Internet provides a continually evolving range of technologically innovative means for tobacco companies to keep favourable associations with smoking and particular brands in consumers' minds.

The near ubiquitous use of the Internet also makes it a highly desirable medium for reaching large numbers of consumers. In August 2009, there were 17 033 826 Australian internet users, which is approximately 80% of the population4 and 72% of households had home internet access.5 Internet use by young people is part of their everyday life.6 The 2009 Children's Participation in Cultural and Leisure Activities survey reported that of the 2.7 million children aged 5 to 14 years, 79% used the internet. In 2008, the average Australian spent an hour-and-a-half (29%) of their leisure time online each day.7 There are more than 9.5 million Australian Facebook users who spend 3.26 times longer online than non-Facebook users.8 Even excluding time spent on Facebook, Facebook users still spend 2.5 times more time online than those who are not on Facebook.

The tobacco industry has shown great interest in Web 2.0 interactivity and tools. Thousands of US smokers helped to design a new pack for Camel cigarettes through an interactive website.9 British American Tobacco (BAT) employees internationally were found to be enthusiastically promoting BAT cigarette brands on Facebook.10 The cigarette rolling paper company Rizla hosts interactive and shareable games on its corporate website.11 The games are meant to reflect 'the brand's image as fun, interactive, individual, colourful and creative.'12 Adolescents are consistently exposed to tobacco content on the Internet through their normal webpage viewing.13

While the majority of content on social media sites such as Facebook does not have a commercial purpose, promotion of tobacco brands on the site can occur in exactly the same way as users can be invited to join a group for dog lovers or respond to an invitation to a 21st birthday party. Though the tobacco industry's reputation in mainstream media is generally negative,14 15 social networking sites provide it with an outlet to reinvent itself as a modern, friendly industry and dissociate itself from the harm caused by its products. New media thus offer tobacco companies a powerful and efficient channel for rapidly countering the denormalising strategies and policies of tobacco control. Adding to this potential is the increased use of social media as a way of engaging with brands and organisations.8

As mentioned above, some BAT employees are promoting BAT and BAT brands on Facebook by joining and administrating groups, joining pages as fans, and posting photographs of BAT events, products and promotional items10 (Figure 11.12.1) BAT employees undertaking these actions are from countries that have ratified the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which requires parties to ban all forms of tobacco advertisements and promotions, including online and any cross-border exposure from countries which are not enforcing advertising restrictions.16 BAT Scientific Communications Manager, Marina Murphy, responded to the Facebook study on the Tobacco Control Journal website, stating that:

'Social media and other types of user-generated content sites are growing at a phenomenal rate. Because of this, earlier this year we reminded our employees, agencies and service providers of our long-standing rules, to ensure that they were in no doubt about their existing obligations and responsibilities as they apply to this relatively new and growing medium.


Our rules mean that employees, agents and service providers cannot freely and on their own initiative post advertising material, in whole or part, on social networking sites, blog sites, chat forums or other user-generated content sites such as YouTube, whatever the intention in posting the material may be. The web is vast and constantly changing, and no company can continuously police it. Things can happen there that we simply don't know about. However, we can work hard to ensure that our rules on internet use are understood and applied by our own people and contractors, and we are doing so ...

Nonetheless, the report has drawn to our attention some specific instances which 'if they have involved any of our employees or service providers' would certainly be wrong and should not have happened. We are investigating these and if we find that Group employees or service providers have posted material that they shouldn't, perhaps out of naivety, we will be telling them to remove it.'17


Figure 11.12.1

Figure 11.11.1
A fan page for the BAT brand Lucky Strike

Source: Becky Freeman private collection

YouTube is the most popular forum for watching online video and has more than a 55% share of the viewing market in Australia. In July 2010, 81% of Australia's internet population viewed video online, with an average viewer watching more than seven hours of video during the month. As advertisers look for ways to engage with consumers in an increasingly fragmented digital environment, online video offers the ability to reach large audiences in an engaging environment where ads tend to perform well.18

A handful of studies have examined tobacco-related content on YouTube. Tobacco imagery is 'prolific and accessible' on the site (p210)19 and the dominance of pro-smoking content has persisted over time.19 Videos are diverse and can be posted from virtually any country in the world. Videos with pro-smoking content ranged from images of young men and women smoking, to smoking fetish scenarios, to magic tricks featuring cigarettes. Additionally, vintage cigarette advertisements appear on the site. While the research was unable to determine if the tobacco industry had posted any of this material, there was evidence that distributors of the Swedish smokeless tobacco, snus, had posted promotional videos on the site. Another study specifically assessed the prevalence, accessibility, and characteristics of smoking fetish clips on YouTube.20 Smoking fetish videos are highly prevalent and accessible to adolescents on the website and feature sexually explicit smoking behaviour by sexy, young and healthy females. The authors call for tighter restrictions to ensure children cannot readily access this content. A 2009 study analysed the YouTube video search results for five leading non-Chinese cigarette brands worldwide.21 More than 70% of the tobacco brand-related videos analysed in the study featured pro-tobacco content. BAT and Philip Morris USA both deny promoting their products on YouTube.22

A content analysis study of pro-tobacco websites revealed that tobacco has a pervasive presence on the Internet, especially on e-commerce sites and sites featuring hobbies, recreation, and 'fetishes'(p281).23 Only 11% of the sites examined contained health warnings. The pro-tobacco sites frequently associated smoking with 'glamorous' and 'alternative' lifestyles, and with images of attractive young males and females. Many of the websites offered interactive site features that are potentially appealing to young people.

Several Australian websites also sell cigarettes. Some sites do not post health warnings, nor do they comply with state and territory-based legislation surrounding point-of-sale advertising.

In May 2007, the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy (MCDS) supported a move by the Australian Government to seek to amend the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Act 1992 (TAP Act) to more explicitly prohibit advertising on the Internet.24 Possible changes investigated by the Australian Government included broadening the current definition of 'to publish an advertisement' to include 'transmitting' the advertisement in electronic form.24 The Australian Government also sought to investigate the inclusion of elements such as:

  • display listings of tobacco products for sale in a text-only format
  • display prescribed graphic health warnings on the site
  • require an age-restricted access system so that minors are discouraged from visiting the site and viewing the advertisements within
  • quantify any and all taxes and other charges that may be payable over and above the advertised price on the product.

In November 2010, the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Amendment Bill 2010 was introduced into Parliament. The Minister for Health and Ageing, Nicola Roxon, stated that the legislation would bring restrictions on tobacco advertising on the Internet into line with restrictions in other media and those at physical points of sale. Online sales, advertising and promotion of tobacco will be subject to the same kind of restrictions that are placed on over the counter sales. The main impact of the Tobacco Advertising Prohibition Amendment Bill 2010 will be on retailers who advertise their products without the required health warnings and as being 'tax free'.25 The legislation will strengthen the TAP Act by making it a specific offence to advertise or promote tobacco products on the internet and all other electronic medium, unless compliant with State and Territory, or Commonwealth legislation.

Relevant news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click here (Last updated September 2018)      


1. Knowles JHJ, Wanke K and Kawachi I. Internet sales of tobacco: heading off the new E-pidemic. Journal of Public Health Policy 2004;25(2):16272. Available from: http://www.jphp.umb.edu/documents/204-020_Health_25_2_knowles.pdf

2. National Cancer Institute. Chapter 3: Key principles of tobacco promotion and rationales for regulation. In: Tobacco Control Monograph 19: The role of the media in promoting and reducing tobacco use. Bethesda MD: US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, 2008. Available from: http://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/tcrb/monographs/19/m19_3.pdf

3. Anderson SJ and Ling PM. 'And they told two friends...and so on': RJ Reynolds' viral marketing of Eclipse and its potential to mislead the public. Tobacco Control 2008;17(4):2229. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/17/4/222

4. Australia internet usage stats and telecommunications market report. Internet World Stats 2010, viewed 11 September 2010. Available from: http://www.internetworldstats.com/sp/au.htm

5. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 8146.0 Household Use of Information Technology, Australia, 200809. Canberra: ABS, 2009. Available from: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/8146.0

6. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Nearly two-thirds of Australian households now have broadband Media release. Canberra: ABS, 2009 viewed 11 September 2010. Available from: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/8146.0Media%20Release12008-09?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=8146.0&issue=2008-09&num=&view=

7. Smart Company. Australians spent one-third of leisure time online. 2009:3 Mar. Available from: http://www.simplenet.com.au/about-us/website-design-melbourne-news.aspx?NewsId=66

8. Sultana D. Nielsen uncovers the new digital divide Facebook users vs non-Facebook users Media release. Sydney: Nielsen, 12 April 2010 viewed 20 June 2010. Available from: http://www.nielsen-online.com/pr/digital_divide-apr10.pdf

9. Freeman B and Chapman S. Open source marketing: Camel cigarette brand marketing in the Web 2.0 world. Tobacco Control 2009;18(3):2127. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/18/3/212.full

10. Freeman B and Chapman S. British American Tobacco on Facebook: undermining Article 13 of the global World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Tobacco Control 2010;19(3):e19. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/19/3/e1.abstract

11. Freeman B and Chapman S. Gone viral? Heard the buzz? A guide for public health practitioners and researchers on how Web 2.0 can subvert advertising restrictions and spread health information. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 2008;62(9): 77882. Available from: http://jech.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/62/9/778

12. Long D. Rizla encourages a little bit of passing... the parcel. 2006:3 Apr. Available from: http://www.brandrepublic.com/News/551112/Rizla+encourages+little+bit+passing+parcel/

13. Jenssen B, Klein J, Salazar L, Daluga N and Diclemente R. Exposure to tobacco on the internet: content analysis of adolescents' internet use. Pediatrics 2009;124(2):e1806. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2818533/

14. Chapman S and Freeman B. Markers of the denormalisation of smoking and the tobacco industry. Tobacco Control 2008;17(1):2531. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/17/1/25

15. Palazzo G and Richter U. CSR business as usual? The case of the tobacco industry. Journal of Business Ethics 2005;31(4):387401.

16. Conference of the Parties to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Guidelines for implementation of Article 13 of the Convention. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2008. Available from: http://www.who.int/fctc/guidelines/article_13.pdf

17. Murphy M. Reply to British American Tobacco on Facebook: undermining Article 13 of the global World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Tobacco Control 2010, viewed 11 September 2010. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com.ezproxy2.library.usyd.edu.au/content/early/2010/04/14/tc.2009.032847/reply#tobaccocontrol_el_3423

18. Radwanick. 4 out of 5 internet users in Australia viewed online video in July 2010 Media release. comScore, 9 September 2010 viewed August 2010. Available from: http://comscore.com/Press_Events/Press_Releases/2010/9/4_Out_of_5_Internet_Users_in_Australia_Viewed_Online_Video_in_July

19. Freeman B and Chapman S. Is 'YouTube' telling or selling you something? Tobacco content on the YouTube video-sharing website. Tobacco Control 2007;16(3):20710.

20. Kim K, Paek H and Lynn J. A content analysis of smoking fetish videos on YouTube: regulatory implications for tobacco control. Health Communication 2010;25(2):97106. Available from: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/ftinterface~content=a919822726~fulltext=713240928

21. Elkin L, Thomson G and Wilson N. Connecting world youth with tobacco brands: YouTube and the internet policy vacuum on Web 2.0. Tobacco Control 2010(online) Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/early/2010/08/12/tc.2010.035949.abstract

22. Sinclair L. Tobacco firms deny YouTube adverts link. Sky News Online.2010. August 26 Available from: http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/World-News/Tobacco-Companies-Like-Marlboro-And-LM-Deny-Getting-Round-Advertising-Bans-Through-YouTube/Article/201008415706397?lid=ARTICLE_15706397_TobaccoCompaniesLikeMarlboroAndLMDenyGettingRoundAdvertisingBansThroughYouTube&lpos=searchresults

23. Hong T and Cody M. Presence of pro-tobacco messages on the web. Journal of Health Communication 2002;7(4):273307. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10810730290088148

24. Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy. Joint Communique Media release. Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy, 16 May 2007 viewed 22 May 2007. Available from: http://www.nationaldrugstrategy.gov.au/internet/drugstrategy/publishing.nsf/Content/B9DFFBBC52656DF1CA2572DD001FBDCA/$File/16may07.pdf

25. The Hon Nicola Roxon MP. Internet Tobacco Advertising to Face New Tough Restrictions Media release. Canberra: Minister for Health and Ageing, 17 November 2010 viewed 6 January 2011. Available from: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/ministers/publishing.nsf/Content/1D2B68296395A232CA2577DE00004878/$File/nr174.pdf

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