A global study released this week alleged that tobacco companies including Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Brands target young people with non-transparent influencer marketing for cigarette brands.
The publication of the report by Tobacco-Free Kids and Netnografica coincided with that of an article by Campaign on PMI’s efforts to market smoke-free tobacco products, which it says are safer than regular cigarettes.
In its report, Tobacco-Free Kids says social media campaigns for brands including Marlboro routinely use social media influencers to portray their products in an attractive way without disclosing the commercial nature of the relationships. The report includes anonymous interviews with influencers who describe working with PMI and BAT to appeal directly to a young demographic through natural-looking product placement.
The allegations throw into question PMI's recent statement that it is prioritising converting regular cigarette smokers to smoke-free products such as IQOS. Campaign asked Tommaso Di Giovanni, the company’s global director of communications for smoke-free products, for a response to the information presented in the report.
Asked if the report’s assertions were correct, Di Giovanni did not answer directly but said PMI’s global marketing follows four core principles: to market and sell to adult smokers; to warn consumers of the health risks of the products; to be honest and accurate; and to respect the law. "None of our marketing is aimed at recruiting new smokers," he said.
Di Giovanni did not give specific details as to PMI’s position on the disclosure of commercial relationships between its brand and influencers, or how the use of influencers to market cigarettes squares with efforts to convert smokers to safer products. He said:
We have been clear that our smoke-free products are designed exclusively for current adult smokers, with the objective of encouraging them to switch fully from combustible products.
Asked whether PMI planned to increase the use of social media influencers to market products such as IQOS, and how investment would be split between these and regular cigarettes, he said company policy prevented commenting on future plans.
PMI has said it aims to switch "at least 30% of our consumers who would otherwise continue smoking" to smoke-free products by 2025. It is looking to step up communications activities, and engagement with advertising and PR agencies, as a means of achieving that goal.
In addition to IQOS, PMI’s heated tobacco products include Teeps, Steem and various e-vapour devices. While PMI was an early entrant, the sector is set to become increasingly competitive, with all major tobacco firms now offering their own variants of smoke-free brands.
A version of this article was first published by Campaign Asia-Pacific