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Vital Strategies joins other leading health organizations urging U.S. FTC to investigate big tobacco’s failure to disclose paid advertisements

(New York, NY) – Global health organization Vital Strategies today joined eight other leading public health and medical groups in a petition to urge the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate tobacco companies’ failure to disclose paid online advertising. The petition follows a two-year investigation, described recently in The New York Times, by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Netnografica LLC, a U.S.-based consumer research and consulting firm specializing in online research.

“Once again, the industry is found to be acting covertly to deliberately target youth and subvert marketing restrictions designed to protect children—in stark contrast to its public proclamations that it does not do so,” said José Luis Castro, President and Chief Executive Officer of Vital Strategies. “To help avert a billion tobacco-related deaths this century, we must stop children from starting to smoke, but this is the very audience the tobacco industry targets to replace the smokers who quit or die every year. We urge the FTC and governments around the world to hold tobacco companies accountable for their deceitful and harmful actions.”

The investigation found that tobacco companies are paying young social media influencers with large audiences on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to post images of cigarettes and smoking and promote tobacco industry-sponsored parties, events, contests and online promotions. None of the images documented in the investigation disclosed that the content was being paid for by the industry, enabling tobacco companies to secretly advertise cigarettes to young people in more than 40 countries. An analysis conducted as part of the investigation estimated that these campaigns had been viewed more than 35 billion times worldwide, including 8.8 billion times in the United States.

The investigation also found campaigns using content created by public relations and ad agencies working for tobacco companies. This is an issue Vital Strategies is addressing through its Quit Big Tobacco campaign, which calls on businesses and nonprofits to pledge not to work with the tobacco industry or the PR and ad agencies that have tobacco clients.

The Tobacco Atlas notes that tobacco use among youth is rapidly increasing in many countries. The highest recent increases are generally found in countries with a lower human development index, many of which lack strong tobacco control laws to protect youth. The sophisticated use of social media detailed in the investigation shows how the industry is using these channels to target youth regardless of geographic boundaries and national laws, such as through the use of English-language hashtags.

 The petition filed by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, Truth Initiative and Vital Strategies calls on the FTC to issue an order requiring tobacco companies to disclose that their social media campaigns are in fact paid advertising for tobacco products by clearly including #Sponsored, #Promotion or #Ad in the content.

About Vital Strategies

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. Our team combines evidence-based strategies with innovation to help develop and implement sound public health policies, manage programs efficiently, strengthen data systems, conduct research, and design strategic communication campaigns for policy and behavior change. To find out more, please visit www.vitalstrategies.org or Twitter @VitalStrat.

For further information or to arrange an interview with a Vital Strategies public health and tobacco control expert, please contact press@vitalstrategies.org