(Reuters) – Cigarette maker Philip Morris International Inc has suspended a global social media marketing campaign in response to Reuters inquiries into the company’s use of young online personalities to sell its new “heated tobacco” device, including a 21-year-old woman in Russia.
The company’s internal “marketing standards” prohibit it from promoting tobacco products with youth-oriented celebrities or “models who are or appear to be under the age of 25.”
The company told Reuters of the decision late Friday, saying it had launched an internal investigation into marketing posts and photographs that Reuters sent to the company for comment earlier this week.
They included a paid post plugging the tobacco product by social media “influencer” Alina Tapilina in Moscow – who listed her age as 21 on Instagram – alongside often seductive photos of herself drinking wine, swimming and posing with little clothing in luxurious settings.
“We have taken the decision to suspend all of our product-related digital influencer actions globally,” the company told Reuters. “Whilst the influencer in question is a legal age adult smoker, she is under 25 and our guidance called for influencers to be 25+ years of age. This was a clear breach of that guidance.”
“No laws were broken,” the company told Reuters. “However, we set high standards for ourselves and these facts do not excuse our failure to meet those standards in this instance.”
The company added: “We were deeply disappointed to discover this breach and are grateful that it was brought to our attention.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administra-tion (FDA) last month decided it would allow sales of the IQOS device in the United States after a two-year review process in which Philip Morris repeatedly assured the regulator that it would warn young people away from the product.
The FDA declined to comment Friday evening on Philip Morris’s decision to suspend the marketing campaign. The agency earlier said it would “keep a close watch on … how the company is marketing its products.”
While most of the social media influencers hired by Philip Morris overseas did not list their ages on Instagram, a Reuters review of the firm’s social media marketing of IQOS in Japan, Italy, Switzerland, Russia and Romania shows that Tapilina’s online persona was typical of what the company called its social media “ambassadors” for the device – rail-thin young women who revel in the high life.
The company did not directly respond to additional questions Friday night regarding the intended audience for its digital influencer campaigns.
Many of the messages contained the hashtag “#IQOSambassador,” tying them into a network of social media influencers that the international tobacco giant has relied on to brand the IQOS as a safer alternative to cigarettes and a sexy fashion accessory.
“I finally have the new IQOS 3, and I can confidently say yes to change … the level of harmful substances is on average about 90 percent lower than in smoke,” Tapilina wrote in an April post. “You haven’t yet switched to IQOS?”
One Romanian IQOS marketer is 25 years old, according to a separate actress biography, but did not list her age on Instagram. Tapilina and nine other IQOS marketers did not respond to requests for comment.
Philip Morris, in its statement to Reuters, said its suspension of the social marketing campaign is “concrete proof” of its “conviction to achieve a smoke-free world through socially responsible practices.”
Matthew Myers, president of The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, had a different take upon hearing of the suspension Friday night. The advocacy group collected some of the IQOS marketing images reviewed by Reuters.
Philip Morris, he said, “is changing their behavior only when caught red-handed.”
The company, Myers said, has historically been “the single most successful across the globe in making cigarettes fashionable to young people.”
Over the past year, Philip Morris has increasingly publicized its “mission” to prevent young people from using tobacco products. Last month, it issued a release calling on “all tobacco and e-cigarette companies to do their part to guard against youth nicotine use.”