Big Tobacco gets a stream of free advertising from people on social media who post “smoking selfies,” images that may help tobacco companies recruit more young smokers.

Self-portraits featuring tobacco use are prevalent and widely shared, and operate as “unpaid advertising on image-based platforms like Instagram,” according to a study published in Social Media + Society. The authors warn that the images further normalize tobacco use and may counteract the country’s progress in changing attitudes about tobacco and decreasing smoking rates.

The behaviors, or perceived behaviors, of peers and celebrities are known risk factors for tobacco and substance use among young people, and social media plays an important role in communicating those behaviors. The popularity of Instagram — one of the fastest growing social networks in the country, with more than 53 percent of young adults using the platform, including many celebrities — makes it especially important. 

Researchers examined 8,000 tobacco-related Instagram posts published between August 2014 and July 2015 and paid special attention to young women, since Instagram is particularly popular among that group. They found that:

  • Images of cigarettes were the most popular, at 49 percent, followed by e-cigarettes at 32 percent.
  • Sixty-one percent of the images were smoking selfies of one person, and two-thirds contained images of women.
  • Forty percent of the images showed a brand name or logo.
  • The most common type of selfie, at 62 percent, showed women doing tricks or other “smoke play.” 

These types of social media posts glamorize smoking and may cause young people to view it as more common, “serving to normalize the behavior and potentially resulting in imitation,” write the study’s authors, who include researchers from Truth Initiative®, Governors State University, the University of Illinois at Chicago and NORC at the University of Chicago.

Other research suggests that young people think that tobacco use among their peers is more common than it is, indicating that “youth still continue to be exposed to pro-tobacco social influences.” A study published in Tobacco Control found that 74 percent of middle and high school students overestimated cigarette use among their peers, and 61 percent overestimated e-cigarette use. 

“Smoking behavior may become re-normalized as the tobacco industry gains covert and unregulated advertising through this medium,” the researchers wrote, adding that the findings show that the tobacco industry is again using “young women — unknowingly or not — as tools for and targets of their stealth tobacco advertising methods.”

They conclude: “These findings portend a dangerous trend for young women in the absence of effective public health intervention strategies.”

truth® has repeatedly called out celebrities for being “unpaid spokespeople” and promoting tobacco use on social media and in other forms of on-screen entertainment. For example, models Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid posted stylized black and white photos on Instagram in which each posed with a cigarette, yet wrote the captions “I don’t smoke” and “I quit.”

“Every post, like and share of a smoking-related image on social media is a free advertisement for Big Tobacco, helping to re-normalize and make smoking cool again,” Truth Initiative CEO and President Robin Koval told Yahoo Style.

Read “5 ways tobacco is normalized in entertainment and pop culture” to learn more about tobacco imagery in pop culture.

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