Facebook and Big Tobacco’s common target: Girls and women

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After protesting for weeks at being compared to Big Tobacco, Facebook doubled down last week and must have decided, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. 

Reports that Facebook is planning to rebrand itself are eerily reminiscent of tobacco giant Philip Morris’ rebranding to “Altria” two decades ago. This news arrives in the wake of whistleblower Frances Haugen’s stunning testimony earlier this month in which she said her former employer and Big Tobacco had much in common. 

Nobody objected to the comparison louder than Facebook, and understandably so. Who would want to be tied to the industry that wrote the book on misinformation and predatory marketing to vulnerable populations?  

In fairness to Facebook and other big tech companies, there is a big difference. Unlike Big Tobacco — which provides no public good and is the world’s leading cause of preventable death — Facebook and other tech platforms do connect people around the world, oftentimes for good. But Facebook has followed in Big Tobacco’s footsteps by targeting vulnerable populations to make money, in spite of information that doing so has been harmful and, in many cases, deadly.  

So our message today is simple: If you don’t want to be compared to the worst actor — Big Tobacco — stop behaving badly. 

The last few weeks feel like social media’s Big Tobacco moment because the parallels are unmistakable: Both products have a detrimental impact on women and girls that is achieved through pernicious targeting and predatory marketing. Each also targets perceived vulnerabilities — such as weight and appearance — to addict people to their products. In both cases, the results have been devastating to women’s health and well-being.   

The tobacco industry has been targeting women and girls for much longer; they wrote the playbook, linking their products to beauty, fashion, freedom and sophistication.

In the 1920s, Lucky Strike boosted sales by marketing their cigarettes as a diet aid. In the 1960s, Philip Morris introduced Virginia Slims, the first women-specific brand. Today, Big Tobacco uses the same themes, especially in marketing heated cigarettes like IQOS and e-cigarettes. Brands like Juulblu e-cigarettes and more have revamped Big Tobacco’s tactics for the digital age to reach young women and girls through influencers, pop culture and of course, social media.  

Social media follows the same strategy. Haugen’s testimony to the Senate subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security shed light on the company’s deliberate use of algorithms to lead young girls to content promoting anorexia and other harmful content impacting mental health. Facebook, Haugen said, knowingly chose not to correct its algorithm. Driving more engagement from more users, no matter how harmful, is good for Facebook’s business, it seems. 

These forms of manipulation and lack of regulation have real-life consequences for health: 

  • More than 16 million women and girls in the U.S. smoke, and more than 200,000 women die every year due to smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke. 
  • 90 percent of adult smokers begin smoking in their teens or earlier. 
  • In 2020, nearly one in five high school girls in the U.S. vaped. This is especially concerning, considering youth who use e-cigarettes are at increased risk of cigarette smoking.  
  • Facebook’s own research shows 32 percent of girls said Instagram made them feel worse about their bodies. 
  • In a poll conducted this month, nearly two-thirds of Americans agreed that life was better before social media, and 42 percent of Gen Z respondents indicated they were addicted to social media. 

It’s past time for Washington and corporate America to make the well-being of girls and women a true priority instead of a convenient marketing slogan. Until then, people will continue to suffer at the hands of manipulative companies — whether it’s Big Tobacco, social media platforms, or the next industry interested in profiting off our physical and mental health. The Biden administration and Congress can incentivize corporations to put people over profits. 

The FDA should ban all flavored tobacco products (including menthol), which are proven to appeal to kids. Facebook must permanently cancel its Instagram Kids platform. Congress and regulators should prohibit tech companies from using design features that hook kids and teens through tricks like auto-play, push alerts, or like and follower counts; legislation introduced by Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) does just that. Social media companies must also stop harmful industries from using their platforms to promote potentially dangerous products and messages — whether it’s tobacco, alcohol, dieting, sexual or violent material — to children and teenagers. 

The threat of government action has already brought change, though not enough. In recent weeks, Instagram announced it is defaulting young people into private accounts, nudging teens away from harmful content and encouraging them to “take a break” from the platform. TikTok will direct users to mental health support such as a Crisis Text Line if they search for “suicide.”

President Biden earlier this year made a commitment to girls and women by establishing the first-ever White House Gender Policy Council. His agenda should include stopping the sexist tactics these two industries use to prey on us and laying the groundwork for a healthier future. 

After all, predatory behavior has for generations been hidden behind slick marketing and corporate makeovers. It’s time to let Big Tobacco and Big Tech know that we’re onto them.  

Karen Kornbluh is founding director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund and former ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Laurie Rubiner is executive vice president of domestic programs at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and former chief of staff to Senator Richard Blumenthal.  

Tags Cigarettes Electronic cigarette and e-cigarette liquid marketing Electronic cigarettes Facebook Facebook Facebook whistleblower Flavored tobacco Instagram Joe Biden Tobacco
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