Anti-tobacco activists are accusing British American Tobacco of dirty tricks by paying social media influencers to promote a new vaping product.
The tobacco giant BAT has signed up Kiwis with large social media followings to promote their e-cigarette brand Vype by posting pictures of themselves vaping on Instagram.
But the move has sparked concern among campaigners who say the suggestive advertising was a potential health hazard.
“It just reminds me of their old tactics where it used to be Winfield promoting their products through sporting events,” said National Tobacco Control Advocacy Service general manager Mihi Blair. “This is just a new trend for them to go through to social media.”
Bailey said they would like to see a complete ban of promoting vaping on social media unless it had a clear health message.
“The social media messages that they’re putting on there right now are of people saying that they’ve quit but there is no history of them quitting throughout their social media.”
The Ministry of Health has said vaping advertising will be banned later this year when changes to the Smoke-free Environments Act 1990 come into effect.
Annabel Liddell, a 24-year-old musician with more than 10,000 followers on Instagram, was among those hired to promote Vype. She declined to say how much she was paid.
She said she was not aware the vape company Vype being owned by BAT until Thursday, over a month after signing the contract, but said that it wouldn’t have changed her mind.
“The fact is I’m a heavy smoker and have been for eight years now so I was already feeding money into that company through buying tobacco.
“Being a smoker I’ve been promoting smoking on my Instagram account without even realising.”
The creative director of fashion brand Stolen Girlfriends Club Marc Moore was also paid to promote Vype. One of his captions reads: “I haven’t had a cigarette for quite some time. Gonna try not to smoke at all in 2019. Been digging the vape as an alternative.” A #collab indicates they are a paid marketing post.
Professor of Public Health and Marketing at Otago University, Janet Hoek, said that Liddell’s promotion of the product would be confusing for her audience and doesn’t represent the positive use vaping is often given credit for – which is weaning smokers off of their addiction.
“When you have a look at her Instagram photos they’re not exactly demonstrating a journey from giving up smoking to adopting exclusive vaping, they’re a real mixture of both and I think that’s highly problematic,” she said.
“It communicates the impression that cutting down on smoking may be a good thing rather than giving up smoking completely.”
Hoek said the use of social media influencers promoting the products can have more negative effects as it could be introducing vaping to someone who never smoked.
“When you think about smoking and the NZ population, only about 20 per cent of young people actually smoke.
“So using these sorts of role models is a really clever way of reaching the 80 per cent who don’t smoke.
“There’s a very high risk that using these role models is going to position these brands as being appealing to young people in general rather than to smokers who are the people that could potentially benefit if they make a complete transition from smoking to vaping.”
A BAT NZ spokesman said social media influencers were recruited through an agency and promotion of their product was responsible and managed through strict guidelines.
“We have to acknowledge that social media is a huge channel and if we’re going to transform tobacco and make adult smokers aware of these new products we need to communicate via the channels that they are using.”
It said the product was only marketed to adult consumers and they only used influencers who are over the age of 25. After Stuff made the company aware Liddell was aged 24, they said she had been recruited through an agency.
“I’d be pretty alarmed to hear if they used someone that wasn’t in that bracket because that’s their requirement that we had,” the spokesman said.
“On influencers specifically, we have strict controls in place to ensure our partnerships are appropriate, targeted at adults and we use agencies and analytic tools to ensure that followers/audiences of these people are in an appropriate age-demographic.”
Although vapes contain no tobacco, the Ministry of Health states that the same restrictions do apply to vape products under the Smoke-free Environments Act 1990, which is expected to be amended with stricter standards for vaping this year.
The BAT spokesman said they were confident the advertising was within the law.
In 2018 the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) released a guidance note for influencers after some came under fire for not accurately displaying they were being paid for posting about brands.
Rules surrounding paid advertising and sponsorships through social media including labelling content through hashtags such as #sponsored or #ad.
The Ministry of Health said legislation act does not fully apply to vape and smokeless tobacco products yet, but that will change when amendments to existing tobacco legislation come into effect later this year.
Liddell is a medical student at the University of Auckland but doesn’t believe that promoting the vape brand on her social media will affect her career negatively in any way.
“There are a lot of doctors, nurses, healthcare providers that are addicted to smoking unfortunately but I think it’s definitely something I’m very conscious of, more so in recent years.”
This article appeared first on STUFF.CO.NZ