YouTube is awash in misleading videos touting the safety of tobacco and vaping, a new study finds.
Researchers found that from 2013 to 2019, views of smoking-themed YouTube videos dramatically increased, particularly those with instructions on vaping.
"The easy access of such [video] material suggests that YouTube is a fertile environment for the promotion of tobacco products despite its banning of tobacco advertising," said researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania. Looking at videos displayed in 2019, the authors found one on "the art of vape" had more than 40 million views -- more than 68,000 a day.
In 2013, the most-viewed pro-tobacco video was on using a pipe, with more than 62,000 views total.
Other videos promise, without evidence, that you can manage the risk of tobacco. In 2013, the top tobacco video in this category was about cigarettes and was viewed 85,000 times.
But by 2019, the top video in this group was about vaping, with more than 3.5 million views, the researchers found.
"Although we have no direct evidence of the effect of pro-vaping videos, the rise of vaping among adolescents in the last few years has been accompanied by dramatic increases in viewership of vaping videos," lead author Daniel Romer said in a university news release. He is research director of the APPC.
YouTube reaches 85 percent of teens, the researchers noted, giving it the potential to influence millions of youths.
The findings "suggested to us that the misleading tobacco videos we identified on YouTube are part of the information environment that eludes the restrictions that apply to regular tobacco advertising and product promotion," said co-author Patrick Jamieson, director of the university's Annenberg Health and Risk Communication Institute.
YouTube has banned ads for tobacco products, but YouTube and the users who make tobacco videos are legally permitted to profit from them, the investigators explained.
"One of the perverse consequences of this business model is that a video with misleading information about a harmful product such as tobacco can be a source of profit for both YouTube and the creator," Romer said. "But the information in the video will go unchallenged."
Producers of misleading tobacco videos can represent private individuals rather than tobacco manufacturers. Although the researchers didn't find evidence of any connection to the industry, they said it's still possible that the tobacco industry endorses and pays the makers of these videos.
The study was published March 9 in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.
For more on the dangers of tobacco, see the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.
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