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Commentary: Shady tactics in influencer campaigns make social media the new frontier for stubbing out smoking

The use of global social media campaigns by multinational tobacco companies to glamourise smoking is what authorities ought to focus on next in the effort to stem smoking, says Nominated Member of Parliament and SUTD professor Lim Sun Sun.

Commentary: Shady tactics in influencer campaigns make social media the new frontier for stubbing out smoking

Composite screen grabs of Instagram posts by social media influencers. (Photo: Instagram)

SINGAPORE: The Singapore Government has passed the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) Bill, thus ushering in new restrictions on the packaging of cigarettes.

Irrespective of their brands, cigarette packs must come in the same size, shape and appearance, adopting a dark drab brown surface with a matt finish, and have graphic health warnings cover at least 75 per cent of the pack.

Such dull and standardised packaging is intended to make tobacco products less appealing to consumers, while providing more health information about the dangers of smoking.


Such a concerted effort to stem smoking is critical because it exacts a significant toll on our society. According to the Ministry of Health (MOH), more than 2,000 Singaporeans die prematurely from smoking-related diseases every year and the social cost of smoking is “conservatively estimated” to be at least S$600 million a year in direct healthcare costs and lost productivity.

MOH also noted that over the last ten years, Singapore has seen no definitive patterns of sustained decline in smoking prevalence, which has hovered between 12 and 14 per cent.   

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According to a study published in Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies, the smoking prevalence in Singapore approximates 15 per cent among adults and 6 per cent among youths aged 13 to 15.

Notably, research by the Singapore Cancer Society found that 80 per cent of adult smokers in Singapore picked up the habit before reaching 21. Indeed, studies in other parts of the world have shown that people who smoke during adolescence are 16 times more likely to become adult smokers.

Given the evidence that early experimentation with smoking is a predictor for smoking dependency in adulthood, governments worldwide must do their utmost to discourage young people from picking up this harmful habit. 

File photo of a consumer looking at tobacco products.


Singapore’s move towards plain packaging will align the country with the World Health Organisation’s framework convention on tobacco control, along with countries such as Australia, France, New Zealand, and the UK, which have also mandated standardised packaging for tobacco products.

The Ministry of Health undertook considerable preparatory work in proposing these changes, referencing over 200 studies, and holding three rounds of public consultations.

Indeed, beyond laws on packaging, many countries have established robust laws restricting tobacco advertisements and the promotion of smoking in paid media content.

However, an adverse trend is gaining momentum that will undo the value and hard work of such anti-tobacco legislation and enforcement. This is the circumvention of restrictions on tobacco advertising by multinational tobacco companies through the use of insidious social media campaigns.

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These campaigns capitalise on the appeal of social media influencers through photographs featuring young role models smoking in cool venues while wearing trendy clothing, accompanied by catchy hashtags.

Deceptively however, no explicit mention is made of the tobacco companies behind these campaigns. Such visually arresting content seeks to depict smoking as a normal practice among young people, and indeed showcases it as a glamourous and desirable lifestyle choice.

Civil societies are responding to this trend. In the United States, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has led several organisations including the American Academy of Paediatrics and the American Lung Association to mount a petition requesting action by the United States Federal Trade Commission.

This petition asserts that tobacco companies are actively promoting smoking via hundreds of thousands of images, hashtags and videos shared by young people on social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

The reach of such content is sizable. Research by the petitioners found that a mere 123 hashtags linked to these tobacco companies’ social media campaigns were viewed 8.8 billion times in the US and 25 billion times worldwide just on Twitter alone.

High school students look at a mock up of plain cigarette packaging before the start of a news conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, May 31, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

These multinational tobacco companies have initiated such media campaigns in numerous countries throughout Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Central, North and South America, roping in high-profile youth influencers in each country. Closer to home, tobacco companies have funded such social media campaigns in neighbouring countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Influencers are given strict instructions on which cigarettes to feature, how to take natural photographs which do not resemble advertisements, when they should post these images for optimal audience engagement, as well as the hashtags they must use.

In one particular country, the influencers were even told to conceal the health warnings on the cigarette packs before posting the images. Such shady tactics are calculated to mislead young people into thinking that these images are organic social media content that simply reflect youth culture.

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While there is fortunately no evidence to show that social media influencers in Singapore have been targeted by tobacco companies in this way, the porous and borderless nature of the internet means that young Singaporeans can nevertheless be exposed to such images.

Many social media influencers also have a global fan base so even campaigns originating from well beyond our shores can appeal to our youths if influencers with a strong following in Singapore are mobilised. After all, Singaporeans are avid social media users, with young Singaporeans being the most active.

Of particular pertinence to Singapore is the fact that most of these social media campaigns promoting smoking almost exclusively use English even when it is not the lingua franca of the country from which these campaigns originate. The highly visual nature of social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat also means that language is essentially no barrier to the communicative impact of such images.  

This is yet another issue, in addition to online falsehoods, that shows how the extensive reach of big technology companies with global influence has significant ramifications on society. 

Because of the lack of transparency surrounding the algorithms that determine what content social media platforms serve us, we cannot discern why we may be seeing more of particular forms of content.

Neither can we exert more active control over our social media feeds should we so choose. Young people who like, share or comment on images portraying negative behaviours as hip and trendy, with particular hashtags, may then be served more of such images on their social media feeds.

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Such transnational social media campaigns that actively promote smoking must therefore be actively tracked by health authorities. 

MOH should also work with its counterparts in ASEAN and countries further afield, as well as the World Health Organisation, to take action against this egregious and damaging practice by multinational tobacco companies.

Health authorities worldwide must also engage with technology companies to remind them of the contributory and supportive role they should play in helping to minimise young people’s exposure to images portraying smoking in a positive light. 

These companies possess the ability to alter their algorithms to stem the spread of such images, in the same way that they have algorithms to weed out obscene and extremist content.

Within Singapore, agencies such as the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore should consider establishing more concrete guidelines around the responsibilities of social media influencers with regard to full disclosure in cases of sponsored content by tobacco and e-cigarette companies.

This practice of covert social media campaigns promoting smoking as a positive behaviour is highly pernicious and must be stubbed out.

Professor Lim Sun Sun is professor of communication and technology and head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, and a Nominated Member of Parliament.

Source: CNA/sl