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Despite policies, tobacco products marketed on Facebook, Stanford researchers find

Facebook prohibits paid tobacco advertising, but Stanford researchers found brands and vendors marketing their products through unpaid content, in apparent conflict with the rules or their spirit.

Before you read his new study tracking tobacco product promotion on Facebook, Robert Jackler, MD, wants you to give the social media company some credit.

"Facebook doesn't need to have a policy preventing tobacco sales," Jackler told me. "It's nice that they do. They mean well."

It also should be noted that the social media company is effective at keeping paid tobacco advertising off the platform, he said. And yet...

"There's still an enormous amount of tobacco promotion going on on Facebook," Jackler said. "But it's done organically."

That unpaid Facebook content is the focus of the study, which was published online Thursday in The BMJ Tobacco Control. Jackler, professor and chair of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery and principal investigator of Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising, is the lead author.

He and his fellow researchers evaluated brand-sponsored tobacco product pages and online vendor pages on Facebook in the context of the platform's policies covering commerce, page content, paid advertising and more.

Spoiler alert: They found many instances of tobacco marketing and sales that appeared to conflict with the rules or their spirit.

They also found that the policies were ambiguously worded, with notable incongruities. Jackler said, "Taken together, the suite of policies convey a clear intention by Facebook to exclude commercial tobacco promotion from its platform. This is laudable, but they're notably lax in enforcing these well-meaning policies."

The policies bar public sales of tobacco products, as well as tobacco imagery and promotion in ads and commercial content on Facebook. The study found that most top tobacco brands - 280 out of 388 - didn't maintain their own Facebook pages. However, as our release noted:

Among 108 company-sponsored pages for leading brands of cigars, e-cigarettes, hookah tobacco and smokeless tobacco, the study found more than half provided 'shop now'-type buttons allowing users a way to buy their products. About two-thirds of the pages included sale promotions, such as coupons and discounts, and all but one featured imagery of a tobacco product. Though Facebook requires restricted access for people under 18 from pages promoting what it calls the 'private sale' of regulated goods or services, including tobacco, fewer than half of the brand-sponsored pages included such an 'age gate.'

What's more, even though none of 21 conventional cigarette companies created their own Facebook pages, several had a presence on the platform through tobacco vendor pages that included links to purchase popular brands.

Jackler said tobacco companies that maintain an unpaid Facebook presence are likely getting a boost from brand-name exposure, as well as engagement and online conversations they encourage. As evidence, he points to the number of Facebook "likes" the pages have accrued. According to the study, 30 pages counted 10,000 or more "likes:" For four of them, "likes" numbered more than 50,000.

That's a lot of eyeballs on tobacco-related Facebook content. It's particularly notable because most smoking initiation happens when people are in their teens, and most teens spend a lot of time on social media.

Jackler thinks Facebook can close these loopholes fairly easily with an automated screening algorithm and minimal dedicated staffing. His study suggests this kind of change.

But gently.

"We don't mean to be coming down hard on Facebook," he told me. "The one thing we don't want them to do is say, 'Well, I guess we can't police this, so let's just turn off all of these policies.'"

Photo by Tony Webster

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