Monday, August 30, 2010

New Article Accuses Tobacco Companies of Using YouTube to Market Cigarettes, But Fails to Provide any Evidence

An article published online ahead of print in the journal Tobacco Control accuses the tobacco companies of using YouTube to market cigarettes (see: Elkin L, Thomson G, Wilson N. Connecting world youth with tobacco brands: YouTube and the internet policy vacuum on Web 2.0. Tobacco Control 2010).

According to the article: "The authors conducted a YouTube search using five leading non-Chinese cigarette brands worldwide. The themes and content of up to 40 of the most viewed videos returned for each search were analysed: a total of 163 videos."

The authors found that: "A majority of the 163 tobacco brand-related videos analysed (71.2%, 95% CI 63.9 to 77.7) had pro-tobacco content, versus a small minority (3.7%) having anti-tobacco content (95% CI 1.4 to 7.8). Most of these videos contained tobacco brand content (70.6%), the brand name in the title (71.2%) or smoking imagery content (50.9%). One pro-smoking music video had been viewed over 2 million times. The four most prominent themes of the videos were celebrity/movies, sports, music and ‘archive’, the first three of which represent themes of interest to a youth audience."

The article concludes that: "Pro-tobacco videos have a significant presence on YouTube, consistent with indirect marketing activity by tobacco companies or their proxies."

Media coverage of the article disseminated worldwide the conclusion that cigarette companies are now using YouTube to market their products and get around restrictions on traditional forms of marketing. For example, the headline of an article on The Medical News read: "Tobacco Companies Use Web 2.0 Media to Get Around Marketing Restrictions."

The Rest of the Story

Despite their claim that tobacco companies are using YouTube to advertise cigarettes, the authors provide no evidence that this is the case.

It is very possible that individuals, not affiliated with the tobacco companies, have produced videos that portray cigarettes and cigarette brands. Has this not occurred to the study authors?

Before making the claim that cigarette companies are responsible for these YouTube videos, the authors need to provide evidence that the companies are behind the videos. This is a serious allegation, since it would put the tobacco companies in violation of a number of laws and agreements.

The only "evidence" that the authors provide is that some of the videos appear to be professionally made. This does not prove anything, however, since the ability to produce professional-looking videos is now widely available.

In fact, two major tobacco companies responded to the article by publicly denying that they are behind these YouTube videos.

British American Tobacco was quoted as stating: ""It is absolutely not our policy to use social networking sites such as Facebook or YouTube to promote our tobacco product brands, and not even the authors of this report claim we have done so. Using social media could breach local advertising laws and our own International Marketing Standards, which apply to our companies worldwide. Our employees, agencies and service providers should never use social media to promote our tobacco brands."

Philip Morris was quoted as stating: "Philip Morris USA does not post cigarette brand marketing videos on YouTube. In fact, PM USA has communicated with YouTube in the past asking them to remove YouTube video content that it believed infringed on PM USA's intellectual property rights."

Since the companies deny being responsible for the posting of these videos, it is incumbent upon the researchers of the study to document or at least provide evidence that the companies are behind this before making such an insinuation.

The rest of the story is that this article makes a serious but unsupported allegation against the tobacco companies. This undocumented accusation appears to be a recent phenomenon in tobacco control. The Rest of the Story has previously revealed a recent trend in undocumented accusations in tobacco control.

My sense is that the reason for this trend in the use of undocumented accusations is the tobacco industry's decision, some time around 2000, to discontinue its oversight of the claims being made by anti-smoking groups. Prior to that time, the tobacco companies would respond publicly and immediately to any undocumented claims. Since then, the companies have basically let anti-smoking groups make any claims they want. It used to be that we in tobacco control would be very careful to document any accusations against the industry because we knew our feet would be held to the fire. However, this is no longer the case and so anti-smoking groups and researchers are becoming much more lackadaisical about their documentation of allegations against the industry.

However, in my view, these undocumented accusations represent a deterioration of the scientific integrity of the tobacco control movement.

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