Online Tobacco Marketing May Increase Risk of Tobacco Use Among Youth

Health, Fitness & Food

A new study examines the relationship between online tobacco marketing and the propensity for tobacco use among teens.

In our modern internet era, online advertising has become an essential component of marketing campaigns for products of all types. Tobacco products, of course, are no exception. In recent years, tobacco company expenditures on Internet advertising have exploded, growing from $0.7 million dollars in 1999 to $23.1 million dollars in 2013.

This increase in online tobacco marketing, and its ability to reach audiences of all ages, including teens, raises questions about the potential influence those ads may have on encouraging young people to start smoking.

A new study recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Health suggests, perhaps not surprisingly, that the higher their level of engagement with online marketing of tobacco products, the more likely teens may be to take up the habit.

Researchers drew their data from wave 1 (September 12, 2013 to December 15, 2014) of the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health (PATH) Study, a national study using questionnaires to evaluate engagement with online marketing and the use of tobacco products among youth and adults.

Researchers focussed on data provided by respondents between 12 and 17 years of age (a total of 13,561 respondents) to assess three main outcomes: (1) susceptibility to tobacco use among those who had never used it (never-tobacco users); (2) the proportion of respondents who reported having ever tried tobacco products, even without habitual use (ever-tobacco users) and (3) the proportion of respondents reporting tobacco use within the last 30 days (30-day users).

Susceptibility to use of various tobacco products among never-tobacco users was assessed based on positive responses to questions such as:

  • If one of your friends offered you a (cigarette, e-cigarette, etc.), would you try it?
  • Do you think you will smoke a (cigarette, e-cigarette, etc.) sometime in the next year?
  • Have you ever been curious about smoking/using a (cigarette, e-cigarette, etc.)?

Tobacco products covered by the questionnaire included cigarettes, electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes), cigars (traditional, cigarillos, and filtered), pipes, hookah (water pipe), snus pouches, other smokeless tobacco, dissolvable tobacco, bidis, and kreteks.

A primary area of interest was the level of engagement with online tobacco marketing, as derived from answers to 10 questions asked as part of the PATH survey. For example, participants were asked whether they had signed up for email alerts, read online articles or watched online videos about tobacco products within the past 6 months. Affirmative answers to the 10 questions were totalled to produce a variable representing the engagement level for each participant.

Other variables, including additional exposures to smoking (e.g. use by family members) or use of other substances (alcohol, marijuana, or other non-prescription drugs) were also assessed and taken into account in statistical analyses performed on the data.

Analysis of the data revealed that 88.2% of respondents reported no engagement with any form of online tobacco marketing; 8.9% engaged with one form, and 2.9% had engaged with 2 or more forms of online advertising. Although the proportion of respondents engaging with online tobacco advertising was fairly low (11.8 % total), researchers note that this still extrapolates to more than 2.9 million teens (aged 12 to 17) across the United States.

Analysis of the PATH data also provided the following information:

  • 8% of never-tobacco users were susceptible to use of at least one tobacco product;
  • 8% of all youth fell into the ever-tobacco category;
  • 5% of ever-tobacco users had also used tobacco products within the last 30 days;
  • More than one in every two ever-tobacco users had tried multiple tobacco products.

Study results also provided insight into the potential relationship between engagement with online advertising and tobacco use among youth. For example, susceptibility to tobacco use among never-tobacco users increased as exposure to tobacco marketing increased. Similarly, the proportion of respondents who were categorized as ever-tobacco users and 30-day users was also among those who reported higher levels of engagement with online marketing. Moreover, these results appeared to be consistent regardless of the type of tobacco product.

Researchers note that these findings correlate with prior research suggesting a significant link between traditional forms of tobacco advertising and susceptibility to tobacco use among youth. The study appears to confirm that this relationship may hold true for online marketing of tobacco products just as much as traditional forms of advertising, and thus indicates an important risk factor for tobacco use among young people.

Written By: Linda Jensen

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