YouTube has become an arena for encouraging smoking among young people, hosting videos that link major cigarette brands with celebrities, music, sporting success and cartoons, according to medical research published on Thursday.
Lacking restrictions on tobacco ads that apply to TV, radio, newspapers and event sponsorship, the popular Internet site has become an open range for the Marlboro Man and other marques, it said.
Public health researchers at the University of Otago in Wellington, New Zealand, analysed a sample of English-language video clips that contained references to five cigarette brands: Marlboro; L&M; Benson and Hedges; Winston; and Mild Seven.
They selected 163 clips on the basis of “most popular” ranking and then analysed them, seeing whether smoking or the brand were seen positively or negatively, and if so, how.
Many of the videos included old TV advertising and posters, which are outlawed in many countries.
There were also scenes from films with popular actors and a cigarette whose brand was visible, extracts of tobacco-sponsored sporting events, and TV footage from the 1950s and 1960s, including The Flintstones, The Beverly Hillbillies and even the Beatles.
Seventy-one percent of the clips were classified as pro-tobacco and four percent as anti-tobacco, while the remaining 25 percent did not fall into either category.
Videos associated with Marlboro were the most heavily viewed, notching up an average of almost 104,000 views each. One attracted two million views alone.
The paper, published in a specialised, peer-reviewed British journal, Tobacco Control, does not directly accuse the tobacco giants of posting the videos, an act that can be done by anyone, and anonymously.
But it says 20 of the analysed videos “appeared to be very professionally made” and tobacco companies had not cracked down on the clips for abuse of copyight.
“This picture is consistent with indirect marketing activity by the tobacco companies or their proxies,” says the study.
“Tobacco companies stand to benefit greatly from the marketing potential of Web 2.0, without themselves being at significant risk of being implicated in violating any laws or advertising codes.”
It warns that pro-tobacco clips are likely to be even more widespread than this preliminary survey found. Only a handful of brands were analysed in this sweep of YouTube and the method used to determine a pro-tobacco image was conservative, it said.
Researcher Lucy Elkin said that YouTube could help by adding smoking to its list of categories whereby a video that is “flagged” by the public for dangerous or inappropriate content could be removed.
As for tobacco companies, “they are either not aware (of the pro-smoking videos) or they don’t mind,” she told AFP.
“They can’t control what is put on by other people, but for the ones that are clearly their property, their advertisements, they can play a role in taking them off by complaining to YouTube for breach of copyright.”
Philip Morris International, which makes Marlboro and L&M, said it “does not market or promote tobacco products on YouTube, nor do we condone or in any way authorize the posting of materials related to our brands.”
“We have previously asked YouTube to remove content related to our brands and will be contacting YouTube again following this study,” its director of external communications, Anne Edwards, told AFP from Geneva.
“We do not advertise on the Internet, such as through YouTube, because it is freely accessible by minors,” Yuka Kin, a spokeswoman for Japan Tobacco, said in Tokyo.
British American Tobacco said its products did not appear to be targeted in the study, with the possible exception of Benson and Hedges, which is sold under licence to mainly non-English countries.
“It is absolutely not our policy to use social networking sites such as Facebook or YouTube to promote our tobacco product brands,” its spokeswoman, Catherine Armstrong, said in an email from London.
The US giant R.J. Reynolds and YouTube did not respond immediately to solicitations for a reaction.