YouTube and the like frustrate anti smoking campaigns

Social networking sites are frustrating Government anti smoking campaigns even though smoking rates have declined amongst young people in recent times, says University of Sydney Professor of Public Health, Simon Chapman.  

Videos, images and text presented on interactive internet sites like YouTube, Facebook and Myspace, are encouraging young people to take up smoking by presenting it as glamorous, acceptable and culturally ‘fashionable’.  

In their most recent 2005 survey, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported 12.7% of males and 14.2% of females aged 14 to 19 were current smokers.

According to the ABS, ‘Tobacco Smoking in Australia: A Snapshot, 2004-05’, people who start smoking when they’re young are more likely to smoke heavily and more dependent on nicotine. They are therefore at a higher risk of smoking related illness or death (McDermott, Russell and Dobson 2002)

Approximately 15,000 people die in Australia each year from active and passive smoking, says Prof Chapman.

“There is a huge amount of pro-tobacco material on the web which escapes regulation”, he says.  

YouTube contains a great deal of pro smoking material, and is the subject of increasing research by the University of Sydney’s Public Health Department. It is a place to, as the slogan says, ‘broadcast yourself’ to the world at large. It allows individuals to upload videos of themselves or others, and viewers are able to leave comments and rate them.  

There are a variety of smoking videos on YouTube including one which contains images of two women blowing smoke into each others’ mouths. This video (which has since been removed by the person who uploaded it) had 221, 033 views and 142 comments. The opinions on it were varied, however the overwhelming majority was positive e.g. “‘Smokin’, ‘HOT HOT HOT’. Loved it’”.  Negative views were also voiced, including ‘Lung cancer becomes a STD. Nice’.  

Another video positions smoking as acceptable, part of a sub culture and hip featuring background music by an alternative artist. 


Smoking is positioned as cool and trendy for young girls by this young smoker


In addition, a video which incited some criticism for its racist attitudes is surprisingly still on YouTube despite their code of conduct policy

Another example of an historical marketing campaign includes the Flintstones cigarette advertisement for Winstons and Virginia Slims advertisements of the 1960s (which are no longer available due to a copyright claim by tobacco company Philip MorrisUSA Inc).


Furthermore, there are international videos with thousands of hits, including one of Swedish ‘Snus’  i.e. smokeless tobacco which is inserted under the upper lip and can be used in non smoking areas.   

In addition, there is another video with over 6000 hits demonstrating how to use snus in front of friends. As well as pro smoking advertisements, there are also many witty peculiar and quirky anti-smoking advertisements, presenting smoking as dangerous. These are widely watched too.

TheBalcony’ smoking ad had over 300,000 hits, 98 comments and was favourited 569 times.  

A Quit Smoking campaign is featured on YouTube which includes an amalgamation of all the anti smoking advertisements broadcast on television. Another popular anti smoking video involves an older man trying to quit smoking, urging others to do so too on his nominated quit day. There are several positive comments, with many others posting their own video responses saying that they too will quit.

In his article, Chapman suggests that this demonstrates the benefits of the internet as a tool also for anti smoking, if used effectively. He advocates using real people, rather than a staged show which viewers will see right through. This is necessary to maximise this new form of media.

Prof Chapman suggests that anti smoking initiatives should focus more on new web based media modes, rather than traditional broadcast media because the web presents “a new battleground for the lungs of our adolescents”.

And I couldn’t agree more. It is important that the Government recognises the importance of targeting the youth in the most effective way possible. It is already learning how efficient the web is in election propaganda, with most ministers standing for the Federal election having a Myspace e.g. Kevin Rudd. If the Government is unable to move with the times, it is likely that tobacco marketing will prosper in reaching young people, luring them in to experiment with cigarettes. It could also potentially wipe out all the progress made to date. It’s time to act. And the time is now.


~ by mel1387 on October 3, 2007.

7 Responses to “YouTube and the like frustrate anti smoking campaigns”

  1. Hey Mel,

    This was a very interesting and informative post. Personally, I don’t see youtube as that influential, but many would say it’s because I’m living in the dark ages. I wonder how much more likely you would be to see a video that glamorises smoking than an anti-smoking ad on T.V, in Australia at least. It kind of scares me that people would seek out something dedicated to making such a disgusting and potentially life threatening habit ‘fashionable’.

    I think that when it comes down to young people and smoking, peer groups are the biggest problem. Younger people often feel invincible; I think the most recent anti-smoking ad to come out (which features a smoker that died of lung cancer talking straight to the camera about how much she’s suffering) is a step in the right direction for changing attitudes. You can easily tell someone the effects of something, but unless they see it for themselves it rarely gets the message through. I totally agree with Chapman in getting real people in anti-smoking campaigns.

    Great blog!

  2. Unattributed use of Youtube to post pro-smoking videos does seem like an obvious area for development by tobacco companies seeking to reach young audiences. However, the two issues are going to be HOW a federal government can legislate against use of a website that is not controlled in Australia, and secondly whether it has the political will to do so.
    The current federal government is fairly neanderthal in its approach to the internet, and its attitude towards the evils of advertising (as evidenced by its unwillingness to move against junk food advertising to a growing obese population of kids), means that it is unlikely to do anything quickly, if at all.

    Maria’s suggestion about more anti-smoking messages being posted is good. Perhaps this could be done in clever ways that would bring the anti-smoking clips up BEFORE the smoking clips, or using culture-jamming techniques, would serve to get the alternate message across. Culture jamming smoking clips would at least provide the kids who need ammunition against the “cool kids who smoke”, with options to look un-nerdlike while resisting peer pressure.
    Good topic – the tobacco companies need to be held to account for targetting younger audiences.

  3. Hey Maria, thanks for your wonderful comments.

    I too was amazed how influential YouTube was for young children when I was researching this topic. My biggest concern is that it features millions of videos, which are largely uncensored, despite YouTube’s code of conduct and flagging system.

    I was also surprised to find some racist comments on one video related to pro smoking. It was posted awhile ago, and hadn’t been removed yet…

    I completely agree that peer groups are the biggest problem. Some are saying that tobacco companies are using marketing tactics using young children so as to relate to them. In the above video with the young girl who glamorizes smoking, it could very well be an undercover ad for the cigarette brand she holds up and promotes as being cool with her pink lighter.

    Also, in terms of the peer groups being a big problem, another issues arises in terms of the indoor smoking ban. With the decline of social smoking, do you think that there will be a fall in the number of 18 or 19 year old teens who smoke socially due to peer pressure? Just a thought 🙂

  4. Thanks Svetlana for your in depth comments.

    Regulation of the internet, especially a site that is overseas, would be so difficult for the Australian Government to police. I don’t even know if they would be motivated and have the will to carry through with it – what benefit is it to them? They could spend the money, time and resources a lot better in other areas where they have more incentive to winning an election…

    I wonder if more anti smoking messages would be effective in hammering the message to youth about the harmful effects of smoking. I remember reading in one online article by the Cancer Council, that a quarter of the smoking population in Australia DO NOT believe that smoking is detrimental to their health! I found this SO bizarre. Would they be immune to all the advertisements confronting us in society or through the media? There are always ads on TV showing how disgusting smoking is and what will happen to your health if you do. Does this quarter not believe what they say? Or do they choose not to believe them? Or perhaps they are in denial I don’t know.

  5. […] term “smoking” returned 29,325 videos. For an Australian blogger’s reaction, see Melissa’s Blog. Chapman says that tobacco companies are probably responsible for some of the most sophisticated […]

  6. […] term “smoking” returned 29,325 videos. For an Australian blogger’s reaction, see Melissa’s Blog. Chapman says that tobacco companies are probably responsible for some of the most sophisticated […]

  7. It appears u know quite a lot with regards to this particular subject and it exhibits thru this particular blog post, named “YouTube and the like frustrate anti smoking campaigns Melissa\s Weblog”.
    Many thanks ,Ashlee

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