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Experts say many children are exposed to tobacco and e-cigarette ads via social media sites. Delmaine Donson/Getty Images
  • Despite limits on tobacco advertising, researchers say children are still seeing plenty of ads for tobacco and e-cigarettes.
  • Most of the exposure comes from social media and in-store advertisements.
  • Experts say parents should monitor their children’s social media sites as well as talk to them about the health dangers of smoking and vaping.

Tobacco ads on television have been banned since 1971.

Advertisements on billboards, paid brand product placement, cartoons, tobacco brand sponsorships of sporting events and concerts, and advertising and marketing practices targeting individuals under 18 have been illegal since 1998.

Yet, kids keep seeing tobacco and e-cigarette ads anyway.

In 2020, 79 percent of teenagers reported exposure to tobacco ads, and 68 percent reported seeing e-cigarette ads, according to research from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Most of the exposure came from retail store-based advertisements and internet-based advertisements, the researchers found.

“Kids are primarily seeing tobacco ads online via the internet and social media, where policies may exist, but they are especially challenging to enforce and regulate,” said Xiao Li, MA, the lead study author and a researcher at the Washington University School of Medicine’s School of Psychology.

The authors of the study, published in the December 2021 issue of the journal Pediatrics, based their findings on a sample of 139,795 adolescents ages 11 to 19 years old who participated in the National Youth Tobacco Survey.

“Big Tobacco knows it must hook kids early because once the brain develops, it’s not nearly as susceptible to nicotine addiction,” Mary Coyne, an advertising expert who works with Tobacco Free Amarillo in Texas, told Healthline. “It is a particularly evil act to addict young people to a product that is known to cause horrible diseases and death, shorten their lives, and make them poorer.”

“Advertising works,” Coyne noted. “In the hands of those motivated by greed, the results can be deadly.”

The study concluded that further regulation of tobacco advertising, especially at the point of sale and social media, is necessary.

“Strict policies need to be developed and implemented for reducing tobacco ads online. It should not be easy for kids to be exposed to online content about tobacco, especially when it encourages tobacco and e-cigarette use,” wrote Li.

Researchers also encouraged further study of tobacco advertising and its impact on teen vaping and tobacco use.

Patricia Folan, RN, CNP, CTTS, director of Northwell Health’s Center for Tobacco Control, told Healthline that the state of New York has taken the additional step of banning point-of-sale tobacco advertising in pharmacies but that there is still “no regulation whatsoever” on marketing efforts conducted via social media.

The problem of influencers and entertainers using or promoting e-cigarette products is especially pervasive, Folan said.

“Influencers on social media can easily share their experiences with using e-cigarettes to their followers, including young teens,” noted Li. “This user-generated content on social media can have a major impact on attitudes and behaviors about substance use. Of course, we don’t want to over-regulate individuals on social media, but well-informed, effective, and ethical regulations, particularly for e-cigarettes, should be put in place to help kids’ well-being.”

Parents can counter such messages by monitoring their children’s social media use and talking with them, Folan advised.

“They’re not getting the message that e-cigarettes are not healthy or good for them… and can be as harmful to their health as cigarettes are,” she said.

Cigarette smoking has declined in the past decade.

In 2020, about 4 percent of high school students and less than 2 percent of middle school students reported smoking in the past 30 days, down from 16 percent and 4 percent, respectively, in 2011.

However, about 20 percent of high school students reported using e-cigarettes in 2020, along with 5 percent of middle school students, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Tobacco and e-cigarette companies still spend an estimated $8 billion annually on advertising, according to the CDC.

Past research has shown that tobacco ads make smoking seem more appealing to teens and that exposure to such ads increases the risk of starting smoking, CDC officials noted.

“There is a large field of research linking ad exposure to tobacco initiation and ongoing use,” said Li. “Ads can normalize the use of tobacco products and lower risk perceptions about these products. This is very concerning because kids are at a critical developmental stage when experimentation with substance use products is likely to start happening.”