Introduction: Limited information exists about strategies and methods used on brand marketing websites to transmit pro-tobacco messages to tobacco users and potential users. This study compared age verification methods, themes, interactive activities and links to social media across tobacco brand websites.
Methods: This study examined 12 tobacco brand websites representing four tobacco product categories: cigarettes, cigar/cigarillos, smokeless tobacco, and e-cigarettes. Website content was analyzed by tobacco product category and data from all website visits (n = 699) were analyzed. Adult smokers (n = 32) coded websites during a one-year period, indicating whether or not they observed any of 53 marketing themes, seven interactive activities, or five external links to social media sites.
Results: Most (58%) websites required online registration before entering, however e-cigarette websites used click-through age verification. Compared to cigarette sites, cigar/cigarillo sites were more likely to feature themes related to "party" lifestyle, and e-cigarette websites were much more likely to feature themes related to harm reduction. Cigarette sites featured greater levels of interactive content compared to other tobacco products. Compared to cigarette sites, cigar/cigarillo sites were more likely to feature activities related to events and music. Compared to cigarette sites, both cigar and e-cigarette sites were more likely to direct visitors to external social media sites.
Conclusion: Marketing methods and strategies normalize tobacco use by providing website visitors with positive themes combined with interactive content, and is an area of future research. Moreover, all tobacco products under federal regulatory authority should be required to use more stringent age verification gates.
Implications: Findings indicate that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should require brand websites of all tobacco products under its regulatory authority use more stringent age verification gates by requiring all visitors be at least 18 years of age and register online prior to entry. This is important given that marketing strategies may encourage experimentation with tobacco or deter quit attempts among website visitors. Future research should examine the use of interactive activities and social media on a wide variety of tobacco brand websites as interactive content is associated with more active information processing.