Recreational cannabis companies use marketing that appeals to teens

PISCATAWAY, NJ — Many recreational cannabis companies market their products in a way that appeals to children and teens, despite state regulations prohibiting it, according to a new study in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Studies. This marketing is easily visible to people of all ages on social media platforms.

“I expected cannabis companies to be unlikely to fully adhere to existing guidelines,” says lead author Megan Moreno, MD, MSEd., MPH, division chief of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Some cannabis companies generate dozens of social media posts a day, and there is currently no system in place to monitor or enforce these regulations. However, it was surprising how the presence of lines guidelines made a difference between states.

In their study, Moreno and colleagues evaluated a year of publicly posted posts on Facebook and Instagram by retail companies in four states where recreational marijuana use is legal (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington ). They searched for both restricted content (such as branded promotions or discounts, overconsumption modeling, messages aimed at young people, and health benefits) and mandatory disclaimers (limited to ages 21 and older, avoiding impaired driving and health risks).

In total, the researchers assessed 2,660 publications from 14 companies. Although prohibited, discounts or promotions were found in approximately 35% of all messages. Overuse was found in 12% of all items. And content containing disclaimers, although mandatory, was present in less than half of all messages.

For example, the state of Washington prohibits the display of branded products, such as t-shirts and hats with a company logo. About 1% of social media posts from cannabis companies in Washington state still contained this content. However, in states without this regulation, these types of positions appeared between five and ten times more frequently. So while regulation doesn’t guarantee compliance, it does appear to impact how often companies share content that may or may not be restricted.

Moreno and his colleagues say content designed to appeal to youth culture (with young role models or recognizable characters) and budget limitations (such as promotions and discounts) is clearly still used, despite current regulations.

“As a pediatrician, I know that marketing and advertisements have a strong influence on children and teens,” says Moreno. “Previous studies have shown how alcohol and tobacco company marketing is associated with youth use of these products.”

Moreno emphasizes that parents should be aware that their children are likely to be exposed to this type of content.

“Since the vast majority of young people and teens use social media, it is important for parents to be aware that cannabis companies are actively sharing youth-friendly and restricted content in these places,” says Moreno.

“Parents should talk with their children about how cannabis companies seek to influence them using youth-friendly approaches, such as the use of cartoon characters and memes.”

The results are just as vital for policy makers, she says.

“It’s important for them to know that the restrictions and requirements around how cannabis companies use social media are meaningful,” Moreno says. “Steps to make these rules more effective include setting up monitoring systems and designating consequences for violating these restrictions and requirements.”

The study authors also recommend the strong approach of considering banning cannabis companies from using social media altogether, since it is so easily accessible to teenagers.

“With many other marketing channels available to cannabis businesses, and with cannabis still illegal under federal law and therefore federal First Amendment protection not applicable (although state constitutions may have similar provisions) , states could test the limits of their own regulatory powers far more than they have to date in the interest of protecting young people,” the authors write.

– This press release was originally published on the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs website

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