GLOBAL: As a global study released this week alleges that Big Tobacco firms have targeted young people through social media influence campaigns, senior figures deny the allegations.

The report, from the pressure group Tobacco-Free Kids and Netographica, said that social media campaigns from around the world have used social media influencers for brands such as Malboro and Lucky Strike, without those influencers declaring the relationship.

Influencers, the report says “are trained on what cigarette brands to promote, when to post pictures for maximum exposure and how to take ‘natural photos’ that do not look like staged advertisements.”

In some territories, the report’s findings suggest that companies not only paid for promotion but for the avoidance of health warnings. “In Italy,” the report adds, “influencers paid to promote Lucky Strike cigarettes were instructed to make sure health warnings on cigarette packs were not visible in photos posted online.”

Such campaigns, if true, fly in the face of many Big Tobacco firms’ stated aim to pivot away from the cigarette and toward “designing a smoke-free future,” in Philip Morris International’s words, or, as British American Tobacco would have it: “transforming tobacco”.

Campaign spoke to Philip Morris International’s Tommaso Di Giovanni, global director of communications for smoke-free products, who argued that “none of our marketing is aimed at recruiting new smokers”.

PMI has claimed that it aims to switch “at least 30% of our consumers who would otherwise continue smoking” to non-combustible products.

However, the pressure group’s report cites anonymous interviews with influencers based in Italy, Brazil and Uruguay, who explain that in some cases the company even provided training. “We had a training session with the person in charge of marketing in Marlboro, she talked to us about how difficult it was for them to advertise due to all the laws in place”, said one interviewee.

“What they are doing is a really effective way to get around existing laws to restrict advertising to young people,” Robert V. Kozinets, a public relations professor at the University of Southern California told the New York Times.

“The most surprising thing to me was the level of sophistication of these different global networks. You get incredible campaigns, the likes of which I’ve never seen before.”

Sourced from Campaign, Tobacco Free Kids, PMI, BAT, New York Times