Individuals who have been exposed to tobacco-related content on social media platforms are twice as likely to report using the product than individuals who have not. In fact, according to a new study, the consumption of tobacco-tailored social media ads or posts increases the likelihood of an individual beginning to use tobacco products in the future by a significant 50%.
In a study conducted at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, a group of nearly 140,000 subjects was recruited to test the impact of this messaging on new smokers. To be more exact, a total of 139,624 individuals were involved as test subjects for the study.
The Keck Study
The study itself was published earlier this week in 2022, via JAMA Pediatrics, and encompassing individuals from a diverse selection of age groups, nationalities, and a widespread social media consumer base of many different niches. The reason for all this? To see where the most prevalence of this phenomenon resides.
The goal of this experiment was to clarify and present the undeniable effects that social media has on influencing the use of tobacco in individuals, on both a short and long term scale.
Senior Research associate, Ph.D., and Primary Author of the report from the Keck School of Medicine’s Department of Population and Public Health Sciences, John-Patrick Allem, made this remark: “We cast a wide net across tobacco and social media literature and synthesized everything into a single association summarizing the relationship between social media exposure and tobacco use”
“What we found is that these associations are robust and have public health implications at the population level.”
The Prevalence of Social Media, and Its Implications
The initial catalyst for such a study arises from a growing popularity found in individuals across the globe partaking in the regular use of tobacco products including cigarettes and vapes, along with the prevalent epidemic of youth consuming said substances. To get a better understanding of where the issue starts, why not begin with social media?
Although Google bans advertisers from publicly displaying adverts promoting cigarettes and substances on its platform, other social media outlets are not so rigid. Popular platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok are often what young people are most interested in. This is likely the cause of this influence to indulge in these kinds of products.
Still, it’s always better to be sure. Hence the study. Speaking further, Allem stated: “The proliferation of social media has offered tobacco companies new ways to promote their products, especially to teens and young adults… Our hope is that policymakers and other stakeholders can use our study as a basis for decision making and action.”
In other words, this study will go on to serve as more of a concrete stance of evidence available to the public regarding how tobacco companies market their products to young adults and older individuals alike, in order to make a quick buck. Inevitably, the use of such substances at an early age can and will have a negative impact on the body the longer it is consumed.
This study serves to shine a light on the misuse of advertising by these companies to target individuals who may, at one point, form an unhealthy addiction to the product, a strategy of exploitation to say the least.
Age Ranges, Content Niches, and Social Media Platforms
When putting these two groups side-by-side and comparing their responses, the study has derived that the individuals who reported viewing social media content concerning tobacco products were more likely to report the consumption of tobacco within the previous 30 days. They are also at a significantly higher chance of adopting the habit at some point in the future.
This can be attributed to the fact that the substance, itself, becomes normalized and even glorified in a way that picking these products up gradually loses its seriousness. On the other hand, those individuals who reported not coming across tobacco-tailored content are the significant majority who either don’t use tobacco in any shape or form, or have distanced themselves from the substance altogether.
Allem made a further statement: “Of particular importance is the fact that people who never had before used tobacco were more susceptible… This suggests that exposure to tobacco-related content can pique interest and potentially lead nonusers to transition to tobacco use.”
Sample studies involved subjects from the United States, India, Australia, and Indonesia, where the overwhelming majority of the study (72%) were adolescents, while 15% and 13% were young and older age ranges of adults.
The qualification for tobacco content used in this study was either organic social media content, from users to their individual profiles, or videos and pictures shared amongst friends and groups depicting the use of tobacco products like vapes or cigarettes. Also, content that was promoted via paid ads was added to the list of observables in which companies and businesses would promote tobacco products through varying social media platforms to generate sales for their business. Popular instances of either organic or promoted content were found across Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, and Tumblr.
A Closer Look
Certain behaviors on these posts can indicate some key insights on an individual’s level of consumption of these tobacco products. For instance, the actions of commenting or liking had a huge say on whether or not an individual indulged in the use of tobacco. Most notably, they could be further divided into three categories: “lifetime use”, “recent use” or “future use” of tobacco products.
Furthermore, those who viewed tobacco-related content on more than a single social media platform were automatically at an increased likelihood of consuming these products and at some point in time. It has been made clear from this research that a direct correlation exists between the consumption of tobacco-related social media content and the certainty of tobacco use.
This study alone is to gauge how social media plays into affecting individuals to become users of tobacco. However, a simple “causal correlation” between viewing content and consuming tobacco would need more research to be taken seriously.
It’s a little hard to determine what habits a person has, exactly, from the type of content they’re exposed to. However, the study makes it easier to determine a person’s likelihood of indulging in the substance based on what’s on their “for you” page.
How To Prevent Tobacco Usage
The authors of this particular study have illustrated that there are 3 levels of action individuals can take to make a stand on the monumental sized amount of tobacco-inspired social media content on the internet.
Allem states, “First of all, we can work on designing and delivering interventions that counter the influence of pro-tobacco content, for example by educating teens about how the tobacco industry surreptitiously markets its products to them.”
Social media platforms can also implement safeguards to protect users, especially young people, from tobacco content. For instance, they might do this by including warning labels on posts that include tobacco-related terms or images. At the federal level, regulators might also choose to place stricter limits on the way tobacco companies are permitted to promote their products online.
The next point of interest researchers plan to retrieve data on is the effectiveness of tobacco prevention campaigns when implemented in public spaces, such as social media platforms. Nowadays, while there is a presence of tobacco promoting social media content on various platforms, support groups and companies have also risen up to fight the promotion of unhealthy and addictive substances to protect young teens from harm. By launching tobacco prevention campaigns, these companies have severely diminished public opinion about using tobacco significantly over the past few decades. This work can be done to illuminate the harmful effects that regular tobacco usage has on the body and minimize the amount of curiosity an individual has which might lead them to pick up a tobacco product in the first place.
The next study will cover similar points as the former. How likely is an individual to use tobacco after viewing tobacco prevention social media content? How likely is that same individual to quit or resume the use of the product?
Tobacco use in younger individuals has become an epidemic. Thanks to the Keck study, a light has been cast on the subject, allowing for more education to spread on the topic. In the fight against the tobacco epidemic, one thing is clear: tobacco addiction is not healthy, it does not serve as an effective anxiety medication, and will often lead to serious internal issues. Spread awareness about this topic and remember to stay safe.