New Research Points to Dangers of "Smoking Selfies"

CHICAGO, Aug. 16, 2018 — New research suggests that the growing popularity of “smoking selfies”—photos posted on social media of people smoking—may counteract the country’s progress in changing attitudes about tobacco and decreasing the smoking rate in recent decades. The study was conducted by researchers at NORC at the University of Chicago, the Truth Initiative®extlink, Governors State University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Self-portraits featuring tobacco use are prevalent and widely shared. According to authors of the study, which was published in the journal Social Media + Societyextlink, these images provide tobacco companies with “unpaid advertising on image-based platforms like Instagram” and potentially recruit more young smokers.

The behaviors, or perceived behaviors, of peers and celebrities are known risk factors for tobacco and substance use among young people, and social media plays an important role in communicating those behaviors. The popularity of Instagram—one of the fastest growing social networks in the country with more than 53 percent of young adults and many celebrities using the platform—makes it especially important.

Researchers from the Truth Initiative, Governors State University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and NORC examined 8,000 tobacco-related Instagram posts published between August 2014 and July 2015. They found:

  • Images of cigarettes were the most popular, at 49 percent, followed by e-cigarettes at 32 percent.
  • Sixty-one percent of the images were “smoking selfies” of one person, and two-thirds contained images of women.
  • Forty percent of the images showed a brand name or logo.
  • The most common type of selfie, at 62 percent, showed women doing tricks or other “smoke play.”

Unknowingly or not, young women have been tools and targets of the tobacco industry.

“Tobacco companies are likely exploiting this gendered selfie norm through under-the-radar advertising that is to the tobacco industry’s benefit only,” the researchers wrote. “These findings portend a dangerous trend for young women in the absence of effective public health intervention strategies.”

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