This week in Michigan, teenage “zombies” are walking the halls of their high school to show other students the real end result of smoking tobacco.

In Florida students are sharing pictures of themselves on social media with a sign that says, “I am not a replacement.”

These attention-grabbing activities are part of Kick Butts Day. The national day of youth activism on March 18 is aimed at counteracting pro-smoking messages coming from the tobacco industry — often through the social media outlets teens frequent most.

The day’s goal is not so much to get teens to quit smoking. It’s to stop them before they start lighting up.

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Kick Butts Day Targets Tobacco Ads

Teens have long been the target of tobacco marketing. A 1984 internal document from RJ Reynolds, the makers of Camel and other cigarettes, referred to young adult smokers as “the only source of replacement smokers.”

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is the sponsor of Kick Butts Day. Organizers hope to use the tobacco industry’s own words to encourage youngsters to reject the industry’s marketing tactics.

Kick Butts Day is also about bringing anti-tobacco messages to places where teenagers often gather — online.

According to the Pew Internet Project, 93 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 go online. And 36 percent do so several times a day.

One 2014 study in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research also found that 51 percent of teens check social media sites daily.

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An Uphill Battle for Anti-Tobacco Groups

Organizers of events like Kick Butts Day have an uphill battle ahead of them. Tobacco companies already have a firm foothold on the internet.

“Over 40 percent of kids are reporting what I would consider to be consistent exposure to pro-tobacco advertisements via the internet,” said Patricia Cavazos-Rehg, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and author of the 2014 study.

This number is based on the 2013 of youth in grades six through 12 conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other research has found that the type of tobacco messaging online varies by site. Facebook promotes tobacco products, history, and culture. While YouTube focuses on products and web-based tobacco shops.

YouTube also contains many pro-tobacco messages that aren’t always driven by the industry. According to a study in the United Kingdom, more than one fifth of music videos on YouTube contain some form of tobacco imagery.

This constant barrage of positive tobacco images is a problem for organizations trying to keep young people from picking up the habit.

“It is a concerning problem when kids are being exposed to tobacco advertising online,” said Cavazos-Rehg.

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Tobacco Ads Online vs. on TV

This concern echoes one raised decades ago that prompted the government to regulate tobacco advertising on television and radio. Like all marketing, tobacco ads — whether on television, in print, or online — are aimed at boosting a brand’s positive image.

New marketing efforts by the industry may be paying off. Cavazos-Rehg’s 2014 study found a connection between teens viewing tobacco messages online and their thoughts about tobacco.

“Kids who are exposed to these tobacco ads did have more intent to become a tobacco user,” she said. The kids “also felt that they had more positive attitudes about tobacco, thinking that it was a cool thing to do.”

Preventing tobacco ads from showing up on billboards or on the glossy pages of magazines is one thing. But the internet has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for marketers.

The internet is incredibly complex and difficult to regulate. Which makes it hard for researchers to know how tobacco messages are influencing teens.

“There are so many social media platforms now that it’s challenging to really study them in depth,” said Cavazos-Rehg, “and they evolve quickly.”

For tobacco marketers, keeping up with the ever-changing social media landscape is their job. That’s how tobacco prevention organizations say they need to approach their anti-smoking efforts.

For them to succeed, organizers say they have to meet teens where they are online. But in a way that grabs their attention and puts the power into their hands.

“Prevention messages are important to stream on social media, but we need to do it in a way that’s engaging to young people,” said Cavazos-Rehg. “We need to make sure that the messages are being seen, being viewed by young people.”

For that, a little scary makeup, fake blood, and a few pictures posted on Instagram or Snapchat might make all the difference.

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