Facebook has removed a series of advertisements in Australia run by a pressure group funded by British American Tobacco (BAT).
Responsible Vaping Australia (RVA), a BAT initiative, ran a series of adverts last year that encouraged visitors to a link where they could sign a petition for the government to let retailers sell nicotine vaping products. Then Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, among other products and services, removed the ads in February.
A Meta spokesperson explained that while the discussion of vaping is allowed on Facebook, the company does not permit the sale, advertisement or promotion of these products. “These ads were not selling vaping products but promoting social issues tied to vaping to Australians aged 18 and over,” the spokesperson said. “Social issues and electoral and political-related ads are held to a higher standard and must include a ‘Paid for by’ disclaimer. We removed these ads for breaching social issues advertising policy because they did not include this disclaimer.”
A BAT spokesperson told ECigIntelligence that the RVA movement is a BAT initiative established to represent adult consumers, responsible retailers and industry associations who advocate for the responsible regulation of nicotine vaping products.
“Supporters of RVA are advocating to end the black market trade of nicotine vaping products by ensuring Australian adult consumers can purchase products responsibly and regulated,” the BAT spokesperson said. “Despite Australia’s ban on the adult retail sale of nicotine vaping products, a rampant black market exists, run by illegal operators selling unregulated products to anyone – including children.”
Protection from hidden agendas
Colin Mendelsohn, founding chair of the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association, said he had not seen the RVA Facebook ads. “Facebook requires all ads to disclose who paid for them, and it is wrong if that information is not provided. The role of BAT is clearly stated on the RVA website.
“However, I strongly support the aims of RVA. BAT has a commercial interest in this area. Still, its message is aligned with public health goals: to provide easier access to safer alternatives for adult smokers who cannot quit deadly smoking.”
Eugenie Pepper, a Sydney-based psychotherapist who works supporting young people who vape, highlighted the importance of strict regulations limiting how these products can be marketed and advertised because they are addictive and damaging.
“My clients start from 15 years old, and they are hooked,” she said. “I’ve been told they are sold under the counter at convenience stores. Also, younger teens get them from older friends and siblings.” Pepper doesn’t believe vaping is a safe alternative to smoking.
Tobacco Tactics reports that this incident appears to be an example of astroturfing. This is when a front group, in this case, the smokers’ rights group RVA, has created the impression of a grass-roots movement, with its agenda controlled by a hidden organisation.
Katharina Wolf, associate professor at Curtin University’s School of Management and Marketing, said there had been a blurring of advertising, marketing and opinion pieces in recent years. Numerous studies have indicated that people don’t differentiate any more between what’s being paid for and what isn’t.
“Audiences no longer pay attention to what commercial interests have pushed messages and what content is purely there to inform or entertain,” she said. “Either way, this kind of messaging seeks to influence Australian audiences by questioning the validity and impact of current approaches. Given the style, this content was likely aimed at an 18+ audience. Still, teenagers will inadvertently consume the message and fall prey to the good old argument that our rights are being infringed and that current approaches aren’t working, which, ironically, Big Tobacco has been telling us about plain packaging as well.”
According to Meta’s transparent ad library, 3% or less of the audience who saw the ads were between the ages of 18 and 24. Wolf also said: “This type of content – irrespective of if we want to label it advertising or not, doesn’t provide a balanced opinion, and it has been funded or sponsored, driven by commercial interests.”
This is not the first time BAT has been called out for breaching advertising rules. According to a Tobacco Tactics article, a complaint was made in 2019 to the UK Advertising Standards Authority for the promotion of the tobacco company’s Vype e-cigarette product via social media by a celebrity, as it was seen to have appealed directly to young people.
– Tracey Cheung ECigIntelligence contributing writer
Photo: Ondrej Machart