Philip Morris International is coming under fire for targeting young consumers with its advertising efforts. On the heels of reports that the separate Philip Morris USA has teamed up with Vice Media to market e-cigarettes to the 18- to 34-year-old market, as revealed by the Financial Times in March, PMI was questioned by Reuters about its “use of young online personalities to sell its new ‘heated tobacco’ device,” despite “internal ‘marketing standards’ prohibiting it from promoting tobacco products with youth-oriented celebrities or ‘models who are or appear to be under the age of 25.’”
Reuters reported on Friday that PMI has been promoting its "heated tobacco" IQOS device to young consumers by way of paid-for social media posts. Of the Instagram images tagged with “#IQOSambassador,” thereby indicating a compensation-based relationship between PMI and the influencers, one was of particular interest for Reuters journalists: a post from 21-year old Russian influencer Alina Tapilina.
“I finally have the new IQOS 3, and I can confidently say yes to change … the level of harmful substances is on average about 90 percent lower than in smoke. Have you switched to IQOS?,” reads the caption associated with Tapilina’s PMI-sponsored post.
In a review of PMI’s social media marketing of the IQOS devices in Japan, Italy, Switzerland, Russia and Romania, Reuters found that “Tapilina’s online persona – which includes often seductive photos of herself drinking wine, swimming and posing with little clothing in luxurious settings – was typical of what the company called its social media ‘ambassadors’ for the device.”
More than that, many of its ambassadors are “rail-thin young women who revel in the high life,” per Reuters, and maintains tens of thousands, even millions of followers.
“We have taken the decision to suspend all of our product-related digital influencer actions globally,” the company told Reuters in response to an inquiry from the publication. “Whilst the influencer in question is a legal age adult smoker, she is under 25 and our guidance called for influencers to be 25+ years of age. This was a clear breach of that guidance.”
The advertising pushback comes amidst larger backlash against cigarette alternatives, such as vapes, which have proven wildly popular amongst young adult and teens. Within the past six month, San Francisco-based Juul Labs Inc. has been named in two separate class action lawsuits – one in a New York federal court and another in a federal court in Florida – initiated by parents of minors, who claim that their children are “intensely addicted to nicotine” as a result of vaping.
In one suit, the mother of “D.P., a 15-year-old high school freshman,” claims that while Juul’s products are “purportedly designed for adult smokers, [the company’s] marketing of Juul e-cigarettes … occurred on youth-heavy social media platforms, [and] used imagery that appealed to youth.” The parents of 15-year old A.N. (initials are used because the individuals are minors) assert that Juul “preys on youth to recruit smokers for financial gain.”
Both lawsuits are still underway.