Facebook has a tobacco problem, researchers say

Key Points
  • Tobacco products are promoted across Facebook, Stanford University researchers found.
  • Researchers applauded Facebook for even having policies aimed at preventing tobacco promotions and sales but recommended the company make them more consistent and improve how it enforces them.
Woman smoking from an e-cigarette
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

Tobacco products are promoted across Facebook despite policies the social media platform employs to prevent that, Stanford University researchers found.

The Stanford team found "widespread" tobacco promotion and sales across Facebook. Some e-cigarette pages show product photos and lists of flavor options while hosting a big "shop now" button that takes the browser off of Facebook and moves them to a separate e-commerce site run by the company.

Many of the pages were available to researchers posing as a 13-year-old boy. That worried the researchers because the surgeon general says almost 90 percent of all smokers tried their first cigarette before they turned 18.

"We would like Facebook to recognize what it's doing," said lead author Dr. Robert Jackler. "The good thing is especially with all this stuff going on – the privacy breaches and content issues around hate speech and fake news – this is low-hanging fruit for Facebook, I would think."

In a statement, a Facebook spokeswoman said selling or advertising tobacco products is not allowed on Facebook. The company uses a combination of technology, human review and reports from the community to find and remove content that violates Facebook's policies. It also provides tools to make it easy for people to report questionable content.

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"Our enforcement is not perfect, but we continue to find ways to strengthen our review and enforcement of our policies," the spokeswoman said.

Researchers applauded Facebook for even having policies aimed at cutting down on tobacco's social media presence, but they recommended the company make them more consistent and improve how it enforces them.

The study was published Thursday in the journal The BMJ Tobacco Control. Jackler's team identified 388 leading brands using Nielsen and Ranker databases. Of those, 108 were found to maintain brand-sponsored Facebook pages, although none of the traditional, combustible cigarette brands run pages. So, there's no official Facebook page for Camel or Newport.

The Stanford researchers measured purchase links, sales promotions and images of tobacco products. They also marked the amount of likes per pages and tested whether pages used age gates, which require people to say they are a certain age in order to access them.

Researchers found purchase links, or a "shop now" button, on 74 percent of e-cigarette brand-sponsored pages, 50 percent of smokeless tobacco pages, 41 percent of hookah tobacco pages and 31 percent of cigar pages.

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To test Facebook's own policies, the researchers created Facebook profiles of men ages 13, 17, 18 and 21 to see whether they could access brand-sponsored tobacco pages and online tobacco stores. They only found age gates on 44 percent of the pages.

A Facebook spokeswoman said the age policy applies to private or "peer-to-peer" sales of tobacco products, not those products that are being sold in stores or off Facebook through licensed, authorized retailers.

The researchers noted the wording of "private sale" may or may not be interpreted to apply to the public sale of tobacco products by tobacco companies or online vendors, and that "it would be hard to justify differing policies for tobacco sales, especially to" users younger than 18.

"If you get into the weeds of every policy and parse out the exact words it will drive you a little crazy because they don't all mesh together," Jackler said. "They're designed to constrain tobacco, but in some ways they don't."

Not all content on Facebook or its pages are promotional, the Facebook spokeswoman said, so the site has different policies to address different types of content. The type of tobacco-related content it allows varies on the nature of that content.

Jackler argues whether it's a paid advertisement or an unpaid promotion, it has the same intent.

"Obviously they're trying to sell their product," he said.

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