Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Large study finds link between social media and tobacco use

“People who had never before used tobacco were more susceptible [to future use].This suggests that exposure to tobacco-related content can pique interest and potentially lead nonusers to transition to tobacco use.”
A teenager smokes a vaping device.
The Associated Press/Steven Senne

Story at a glance

  • For years, researchers have been investigating the potential deleterious effects of social media use on health.

  • A recently published meta-analysis found a significant association between exposure to tobacco-related content on social media and past, present and future tobacco use.

  • Investigators called on the federal government to implement prevention strategies to better protect impressionable youth online.

Despite the Biden administration’s recent efforts to curtail tobacco addiction among Americans through cigarette nicotine limits, new research indicates officials might want to direct their prevention efforts online.

According to the largest study on the topic to date, people who viewed tobacco content on social media were more than two times as likely to use the substance compared with those who were not exposed. Both organic content, such as friends’ post, and curated content, or advertisements, were included in the study.

Findings of the meta-analysis were published in JAMA Pediatrics and also showed that even among never-users, those who viewed tobacco-related content on social media were more than twice as likely to use it in the future than non-viewers. 

The review included 24 datasets, complete with information from 139,624 individuals, the majority of whom were adolescents. The studies also took place in a range of countries that included the United States, Indonesia and Australia. 

“The proliferation of social media has offered tobacco companies new ways to promote their products, especially to teens and young adults,” said study co-author Jon-Patrick Allem of the Keck School of Medicine in a statement.

“Of particular importance is the fact that people who had never before used tobacco were more susceptible,” Allem continued. “This suggests that exposure to tobacco-related content can pique interest and potentially lead nonusers to transition to tobacco use.”

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Those exposed to tobacco on social media were also more likely to have had past 30-day tobacco use, while similar associations of past, current and future use were seen for exposure to tobacco promotions, active engagement with content, passive engagement and exposure among youths and adolescents. 

Individuals who consumed content on more than one platform were more likely to report current use or future susceptibility compared with single platform viewers. 

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram and Snapchat were among the platforms hosting tobacco-related content. Notably, relative social media newcomer TikTok was not included in the analysis, but researchers have plans to conduct further studies on new platforms including TikTok and refine associations by different tobacco form, such as e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

Because results are based largely on surveys conducted at one point in time, a direct cause cannot be confirmed. 

However, based on the findings, researchers suggest federal regulators develop comprehensive strategies to reduce the amount of tobacco-related content on social media. Initiatives to better educate teens on tobacco companies’ surreptitious marketing practices can also help address this problem. 

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