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No wonder the teens are vaping

A study shows Facebook is doing a bad job of policing tobacco-adjacent ads, even in accordance with its own policies.

Facebook doesn’t allow paid tobacco advertisements, but the platform is chock full of brand-sponsored pages for nicotine products ranging from chewing and hookah tobacco to vapes, cigars, and e-cigarettes — and brands play fast and loose with rules about marketing them to young people, according to a new study.

Facebook’s lack of control over these ads is particularly relevant in light of how popular vaping has become with teens. “As the vast majority of smoking initiation occurs during teen years, the tobacco industry has a long history of targeting adolescents,” said Robert Jackler, a professor at Stanford and the author of a new paper about nicotine products on Facebook, published today in the journal Tobacco Control. “If you want to reach teens in 2018, the place to do it is via social media, especially Facebook because such a high fraction of youth use it on a daily basis.”

Jackler and a team of collaborators at the Stanford University School of Medicine looked at the Facebook presence of nearly 400 popular tobacco brands. They found more than half of leading hookah tobacco and e-cigarette brands maintained Facebook pages, many of which contained links to sites where tobacco can be purchased. None of the 21 most popular cigarette brands operated their own Facebook pages, the team found, but a number of prominent online tobacco stores promoted Marlboro and Camel products, alongside links to buy them.

Facebook’s commerce policies, the paper points out, forbids posts that “promote the sale of tobacco products or tobacco paraphernalia” including, according to a clarification page, electronic cigarettes. And though the company’s page guidelines stipulate that pages that sell tobacco and other adult products must restrict access to users under the age of 18, the Stanford researchers found that fewer than half the pages they reviewed did so.

The Stanford study refers to few brands specifically, but a review of leading nicotine sellers shows that many use the site for promotional purposes. Juul, a vape pen that’s popular with teens, often posts links to products on its online store. Diamond Crown, a cigar maker, often makes hashtag-laden posts like “Weekend morning goals for your #Friday #fangram,” which was accompanied by an image of a cigar resting on a bed of coffee beans.

“Selling or advertising tobacco products is not allowed on Facebook,” said a Facebook spokesperson. “We use a combination of technology, human review and reports from our community to find and remove any content that violates these policies, and provide tools that make it easy for our community to report content they think may violate. Our enforcement is not perfect, but we continue to find ways to strengthen our review and enforcement of our policies.”

Worldwide, the CDC estimates that tobacco use is responsible for nearly six million deaths per year. The health implications of e-cigarettes, which the Stanford researchers found were particularly well represented on Facebook compared to traditional cigarettes, aren’t entirely clear. While it’s possible that using an e-cigarette is less dangerous that smoking or chewing tobacco, high school educators are struggling to deal with the technology’s appeal to teenagers.

Facebook has come under scrutiny over the past year for the ways that its platform can be used for ill. Investigators believe that the social network was used by Russian operatives to spread disinformation during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and it also emerged last month that a Trump-linked consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica collected information about tens of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge or consent.

Enforcing strict guidelines about the promotion and sale of restricted substances like tobacco, Jackler suspects, would be relatively easy compared to dealing with those more nuanced issues.“Recognizing hate speech and fake news often requires human interpretation,” he said. “In the case of tobacco promotion, it would be easy to identify and exclude tobacco brand sponsored pages with minimal effort and to maintain oversight via automated screening algorithms keyed on tobacco brand names and product imagery.”

Jon Christian/The Outline