Tobacco companies may be using interactive websites such as YouTube to market their products to young people, according to a study.
Tobacco brands have always vehemently denied product placement on the internet, and several signed a voluntary agreement to restrict direct advertising online by the end of 2002.
But a study published online by the Tobacco Control journal found more than 20 "very professionally made" video clips in a YouTube search for any reference to five tobacco brands – Marlboro, L&M, Benson & Hedges, Winston and Mild Seven. Marlboro, L&M, Winston and Mild Seven are the top four brands by world sales.
Researchers analysed 163 clips from the first 20 pages of the search on YouTube, which has the largest market share of the online video market.
The clips included the 40 most viewed for Marlboro, Winston and Benson & Hedges, 24 English language videos for Mild Seven and 19 for L&M.
The videos associated with Marlboro were the most heavily viewed, attracting an average of almost 104,000 views and one had two million views. Almost three-quarters of the content (71 per cent) was "pro-tobacco", with less than 4 per cent classified as "anti-tobacco", the study found.
Most of the clips (70 per cent) contained images of people smoking branded products, and most contained brand content or the brand name.
The study's authors, from the University of Otago in New Zealand, said: "The arguments used to limit tobacco imagery in film and TV appear to apply to internet videos." They concluded: "Policy development by governments and/or the World Health Organisation is needed to encourage or require website operators to add pro-tobacco imagery or brand content to the material they will remove, to reduce youth exposure to such material."