Children can buy tobacco and e-cigarettes on Facebook, research has found.
They can be purchased by clicking the ‘shop now’ buttons on pages sponsored by brands on the scandal-hit social networking site.
This is despite a ban on selling tobacco on Facebook.
The study comes amid a huge investigation into the site after it admitted to sharing data of up to 87 million users with political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica.
Stanford University researchers warned the unpaid ‘organic’ marketing towards tobacco products could get youngsters hooked on the killer items.
Children can buy tobacco and e-cigarettes on Facebook, research has found (pictured: an advert for cigarettes and tobacco on the social networking site)
Professor Robert Jackler, lead author, said: ‘Clearly, there are a lot of policies with the laudable intent of keeping tobacco promotion and sales out of Facebook.
‘These policies are voluntary, and they are a sign of Facebook’s commitment to social responsibility.
‘With some two billion users and an enormous volume of daily postings, Facebook has a daunting task of policing its content.’
Government rules state that tobacco products must not be sold to anyone under the age of 18.
But fewer than half the 108 brand-sponsored pages examined included an ‘age gate’ to protect vulnerable youngsters.
They featured more than half of the top 46 hookah tobacco brands and of the top 92 e-cigarette brands.
Around two-thirds included sale promotions such as coupons and discounts, the study published in Tobacco Control found.
All but one had imagery of a tobacco product, which is also against Facebook’s advertising policy.
While they didn’t identify pages for any of the 21 top traditional cigarette brands, they found 10 of 14 online tobacco stores with company-maintained Facebook pages promoted popular cigarette brands, and included links to purchase them.
WHAT IS THE CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA SCANDAL?
Communications firms Cambridge Analytica has offices in London, New York, Washington, as well as Brazil and Malaysia.
The company boasts it can ‘find your voters and move them to action’ through data-driven campaigns and a team that includes data scientists and behavioural psychologists.
‘Within the United States alone, we have played a pivotal role in winning presidential races as well as congressional and state elections,’ with data on more than 230 million American voters, Cambridge Analytica claims on its website.
The company profited from a feature that meant apps could ask for permission to access your own data as well as the data of all your Facebook friends.
It was initially estimated that the firm was able to mine the information of 55 million Facebook users even though just 270,000 people gave them permission to do so.
But, Facebook has since revealed the number was actually as high as 87 million.
This was designed to help them create software that can predict and influence voters’ choices at the ballot box.
The data firm suspended its chief executive, Alexander Nix, after recordings emerged of him making a series of controversial claims, including boasts that Cambridge Analytica had a pivotal role in the election of Donald Trump.
This information is said to have been used to help the Brexit campaign in the UK.
Several pages showed evidence of strategies to interact with users, enable ongoing exposure to their brands and create communities to promote tobacco products.
The study also found 30 brand and vendor pages had accumulated 10,000 or more likes, with four counting more than 50,000.
Professor Jackler said: ‘From an advertiser’s point of view, you want to make sure you have gotten someone’s attention.
‘And the fact they have responded approvingly means your message has gotten through with some potency.’
The study focused on Facebook because younger people are more likely to begin using tobacco products.
They tend to be more active on social media, increasing the risk of them becoming nicotine-addicted.
Facebook banned private individuals from buying, selling or trading tobacco products last summer.
However, that provision had been removed by February, the researchers found.
Additionally, the advertising policy bars the promotion of tobacco product sales – for example, with language like ‘buy cigarettes and e-cigarettes here today’.
But researchers found purchase links on 58 of the brand-sponsored pages and sale promotion on 71 of them – including about three-quarters of the e-cig brands.
On many of the pages, the researchers found a lack of safeguards meant to prevent access to minors.
Several also showed evidence of strategies to interact with users, enable ongoing exposure to their brands and create online communities to promote tobacco products.
The platform’s ‘page terms’, which apply to all Facebook pages, require restricted access to people under 18 from pages promoting the private sale of tobacco products.
According to the researchers, it was unclear what was meant by ‘private sale’ and whether the policy would apply to the public sale of tobacco products by commercial entities.
The study found a majority of the examined pages – 56 per cent of the tobacco-brand-sponsored pages and 90 per cent of the online vendors’ pages – failed to incorporate measures to screen out underage consumers.
Professor Jackler said the study reveals loopholes within Facebook’s tobacco-related policies that the company could potentially close.
He added: ‘Our hope is our study, by highlighting the degree to which tobacco marketers evade Facebook’s intended restrictions, will encourage the company to make a renewed effort to implement its well-intentioned policies.’