A new study reveals how social media and influencers have become vehicles for tobacco companies to promote smoking among young people. The report, titled “Spanish Influencers and the Impact of Digital Smoke on Youth,” found that major influencers are exposing 51 million 18-24 year old followers to smoking content.
The study, by the Spanish Association Against Cancer and Lasker consulting, analyzed 450 top Spanish influencers on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube from 2018-2023. It found 25% of these accounts posted smoking-related content over the past six years, reaching a massive audience of 182 million followers. Of those exposed to this “digital smoke,” over 13 million are youth 18-24 years old.
The analysis shows tobacco brands strategically leverage influencers to target youth with a total of 33% of smoking posts promoted specific cigarette brands. The most common smoking content was vaping, at 46%, followed by cigarettes at 42%. Experts warn vaping and water pipes are gateways to nicotine addiction.
“Despite the bright colors and friendly flavors, vaping poses serious health risks and can lead to cancer,” said Karen Ramirez of the Spanish Association Against Cancer. She worries vaping could undo decades of anti-smoking progress, leading youth smoking rates returning to 1980s levels.
The study found 28% of influencers posting smoking content are from TV or streaming platforms. Music influencers accounted for 4% and dedicated vaping influencers another 5%. But gamers topped the list at 56% in terms of their power to sway youth smoking habits.
YouTube contained the most tobacco content at 57%, followed by Instagram at 25% and TikTok at 18%. “On YouTube, vaping dominates, while cigarettes lead on TikTok,” noted analyst Jorge Lopez Menes. Overall volume of smoking posts has sharply risen since 2020.
49% of Spanish influencers’ followers are young people living in Spain. Over half of young people exposed to digital smoke are smokers, more than double the rate of unexposed youth. Spanish influencers also reach 9% of followers in Brazil, 8% in the U.S. and 7% in Mexico and Italy.
With smoking glamorized on platforms popular with young people, experts emphasize the urgent need for regulation and countering tactics to protect public health.
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