Tobacco & Nicotine Products
Social media and tobacco messages: A randomized controlled pilot study in Brazil and China
(School of Public Health (UMD) Behavioral and Community Health Doctoral Student)
Background: Social media is a powerful tool to deliver pro- and anti-tobacco messages. Messages from advertisers, family and friends can shape young people’s attitudes and uptake of tobacco. This pilot study explores tobacco messages conveyed through social media, and whether it varies by country and online activities. Design/Methods: In Spring 2014, 58 college students from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Shanghai, China participated in a four week study. After a baseline survey, students monitored and recorded sponsored tobacco advertisements, pro-tobacco messages from family and friends, and anti-smoking messages that appeared through their social media for one week. Then, students were randomized into control, low and high interest groups. For two weeks, those in the control group did not alter their online behaviors. Students in the low and high interest groups engaged in pro-tobacco activities, such as searching for products, chatting in pro-smoking groups, and learning about smokers’ rights. During the fourth week, students reverted to not engaging in online activities, but continued monitoring their social media. Results: At baseline, 5% of the students reported that they had been contacted online with offers from a tobacco company and 12% had seen pro-tobacco messages posted by family or friends. In the study’s first week, students saw an average of 0.014 sponsored tobacco advertisements, 0.072 pro-tobacco messages from family and friends, and 0.027 anti-smoking messages, with no significant differences by country or interest group. Over the study, control group students did not see differential message rates. In contrast, students in the low and high interest groups observed a significant increase in sponsored tobacco advertisements (p< 0.05), pro-tobacco messages from family and friends (p< 0.01), and anti-smoking messages (p< 0.05), comparing the first no-activity week to the subsequent weeks. Conclusions: Young people encounter tobacco messages through social media, and those who engage in online tobacco activities receive more messages (both for and against tobacco use) than those not doing such activities. This small study occurred for just four weeks; however, it used students’ existing and real social media. If young people, especially those who may be vulnerable and engaging in online tobacco activities, receive pro-tobacco messages, then stronger regulations must be put in place to curb pro-tobacco messages delivered via social media.