Employees of British American Tobacco (BAT) are actively promoting the company's cigarette brands by administering Facebook groups, joining groups as fans, and posting promotional materials — all violations of the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control — according to Australian researchers.
“The international tobacco-control community and governments should focus far greater attention on monitoring and documenting ways in which tobacco companies are utilizing online social-networking sites to promote smoking and brands,” the researchers said.
Becky Freeman of the University of Sydney and colleagues identified BAT employees on Facebook; they then searched the site for the name 'British American Tobacco' and company brands like 'Dunhill' and 'Lucky Strike.' Each term resulted in more than 500 search results on Facebook.
The researchers found, for example, that a Facebook group called Lucky Strike Fun was administered by a BAT employee from Greece. Large numbers of BAT employees also were members of groups promoting Lucky Strike and Dunhill, the study said.
“It is not possible to determine who created the Facebook pages that promoted the Dunhill and Lucky Strike brands,” Freeman and colleagues noted. “However, according to Facebook's own rules of conduct these pages should have been created by persons authorized by BAT. It is also possible that these pages were created by private fans of BAT brands. However, given that BAT employees have joined these pages as BAT network members, the company cannot claim to be unaware of these promotional activities.”
“Further, the goal of online social networking is to intentionally create communities where fans of a brand can promote the products they like through 'word of mouse' marketing and engage with the companies making these products,” according to the study. “Given that pages/groups with bigger numbers of members generate more interest, the high number of BAT employees on the Lucky Strike fan page and the Kent cigarettes group could have been a strategy to help drive traffic to the page/group. Even if BAT did not create these pages itself, it has not removed this content from Facebook.”
The findings were published online in the journal Tobacco Control.