Four vaping firms, including British American Tobacco (BAT), have been banned from promoting their products on public Instagram pages.
Health campaigners described the ruling as “a huge step forward”.
UK regulations prohibit online advertising of e-cigarettes, however BAT, Ama Vape Lab, Attitude Vapes and Mylo Vapes all argued that their Instagram posts simply provided permitted factual information such as the name, content and price of their products.
The ruling comes as new research suggests that e-cigarette vapour increases the potential for lung bacteria to cause harm and increase inflammation.
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The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) disagreed with the e-cigarette firms’ argument, ruling the posts “clearly went beyond the provision of factual information” and were promotional in nature.
The ruling followed complaints from Action on Smoking and Health, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Stop (Stopping Tobacco Organisations and Products) that the posts broke advertising rules by promoting unlicensed, nicotine-containing e-cigarettes and their components on Instagram.
Seven Instagram posts by BAT for its e-cigarette brand Vype came under scrutiny, three of which featured captioned pictures of singer Lily Allen.
The ASA said a social media page or account might fall within the rules if it could only be found by those actively seeking it.
But it noted it was possible for posts from a public Instagram account to be automatically distributed to users following the hashtags they contained or possible for the posts to appear on another user’s Instagram Explore page.
The ASA said: “We considered both mechanisms were consistent with content being pushed to consumers without having opted into to receive the message it contained and therefore that neither mechanism was equivalent to actively seeking out information about e-cigarettes.”
It added that such posts from a public Instagram account was “not analogous to a retailer’s own website” and was therefore “subject to the prohibition on advertising of unlicensed, nicotine-containing e-cigarettes, meaning that neither promotional nor factual content was permitted.”
The ASA also found the ads contained content which “clearly went beyond the provision of factual information and was promotional in nature”.
Simon Cleverly, group head of corporate affairs at BAT, said: “In relation to the complaint that we were promoting unlicensed, nicotine-containing e-cigarettes and their components on Instagram, while we believed that the content included in the complaint was compliant with the ASA’s CAP Code, we will abide by the ASA’s decision and recommendation to remove the relevant posts and amend our Instagram account settings.”
Professor Anna Gilmore, director of the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath, the research partner of Stop, said: “This is a major step forward in stopping the tobacco industry from promoting its new addictive products to children and teenagers.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the charity Action on Smoking and Health, added: “BAT’s defence that all they were doing was providing ‘information’ on social media, not promoting their products, has been blown out of the water.
“The ASA ruling leaves no doubt that BAT’s social media tactics for Vype were both irresponsible and unlawful and must never be repeated.”
Meanwhile, researchers from Queen’s University Belfast have discovered that bacteria often found in the lungs became more harmful and caused increased inflammation when they were exposed to e-cigarette vape.
The study, published in Respiratory Research, showed that the increase in lung inflammation is due to bacteria made more virulent by exposure to e-cigarette vapour.
Dr Deirdre Gilpin, lead author of the study, said: “Bacteria have long been associated with the development of lung diseases such as bronchitis and pneumonia where smoking plays a role. Our study is the first of its kind which aimed to compare the effect of cigarette smoke and e-cigarette vapour on key lung bacteria.”
Vaping has been suggested as a safer alternative to smoking, though there is limited evidence to support this and there are major concerns around its safety.