Alex Woodruff is a Policy Analyst at Boston University School of Public Health. He tweets at @aewoodru.
Marketing has a powerful effect on shaping teens’ behavior. With recreational cannabis use legalized in many states, and on track to becoming legal in more, advertisement regulations could shape teens’ exposure to cannabis marketing.
Cannabis marketing is booming. The industry is rapidly growing in the social media space for product promotion, especially to young audiences. Social media influencers display cannabis products as a key component to a complete and healthy life, with artfully crafted edibles, CBD lattes and lotions to fit the consumers’ taste. There are entire lifestyle brands that promote cannabis and CBD (one of the chemicals in marijuana without any psychoactive effects) as a treatment for anything from menstrual cramps to depression. These advertisements are readily available to teens and are undoubtedly alluring. It would be easy for teens to view cannabis products as a holistic treatment for the rising rates of anxiety and depression or simply as way to connect with trends on social media.
But one of the few areas of consensus among public health officials and doctors about the effects of marijuana is that it is harmful to developing brains. Cannabis use among teens is associated with decreased cognitive functioning and psychosis later in life. Multiple organizations including the American College of Pediatricians and the American College of Adolescent Psychology have opposed legalization efforts on the basis that it puts teens at risk.
While the causal effect of cannabis marketing on teens is unclear, it is established that the more time teens spend engaging with a product’s marketing — by following accounts, wearing branding, and sharing ads with friends, for instance — the higher the odds are that they use that product.
Public health officials and activists have spent decades trying to protect teens from tobacco and alcohol marketing by encouraging restrictions on the types and locations of advertising for these products. But social media has changed the game. Ads are no longer generic TV commercials and billboards, but instead are targeted messages that latch on to viewers’ known interests.
A group of researchers from across the country including Dr. Pamela Trangenstein, Dr. Jennifer Whitehill, Marina C. Jenkins, Dr. David Jernigan, and Dr. Megan Moreno, looked at how much teens in states with legalized non-medical cannabis are exposed to cannabis marketing. They found that over 90% were exposed to at least some kind of marketing. The majority came, unsurprisingly, from social media.
This same group of researchers recently took a deep dive into the relationship between cannabis marketing and teen use. (The authors of this study are affiliated with Boston University School of Public Health’s Department of Health Law, Policy and Management, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and University of Wisconsin Madison.) Across multiple states with legalized non-medical cannabis, they asked teens how much they interact with cannabis advertisements in their day-to-day lives and how that links to cannabis use.
Using online surveys, they asked 482 teens, aged 15-19 years, questions about their experience with cannabis branding and social media. For example, they asked if teens were actively following social media accounts with marijuana marketing. Probing deeper, researchers asked teens what their favorite cannabis brand was, how likely they were to own or wear a cannabis branded item, and the extent that they used cannabis products.
The researchers found that over a third of teens in states with legalized non-medical cannabis were interacting with cannabis promotions on social media. Teens were actively and intentionally following certain cannabis business pages on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Instagram had the largest following, with Facebook close behind. Roughly a third of respondents said they were likely to own or wear a branded product, and 20 percent reported having a favorite brand.
Overall, about a third of teens surveyed reported using marijuana in the past year. Teens that said that they like or follow a brand on social media were five times more likely to have used cannabis in the past year compared to their non-engaged peers. Those who said they do or would own a branded item were seven times more likely to have used cannabis in the past year. Those with a favorite brand were eight times more likely. Youth who reported past-year cannabis use did not differ by gender, race, or ethnicity, but were more likely report having parents with less than a bachelor’s degree.
These findings underscore the link between youth and marketing. Teens who interact with marketing are much more likely to use cannabis products, putting them at greater risk for the mental health outcomes described above.
The explosion of legal cannabis brands means that there is a lot of interest in finding new ways to advertise products and gain an edge in the market. To date, there is significant variation in the restrictions states have adopted on cannabis advertisements. For example, Colorado has several restrictions on internet, pop-up, location-based, and out-of-state advertising, while Alaska has none.
Plus, each social media platform has its own restrictions on cannabis advertising. For example, advertising cannabis on Facebook is banned, but a policy change in 2018 allows users to search and follow cannabis-related pages. Instagram users can search tags such as #legalmarijuana or #CBD and find hundreds of blogs and places to buy products.
The new research suggests that we need to better understand how teens interact with cannabis advertisements. The evident variation in state marketing restrictions indicates there is a lack of consensus among policymakers on how best to protect this highly-susceptible group from harmful promotions. More data are needed to better determine how these advertisements can be effectively restricted to protect teens. It is a huge undertaking, but as we learned from tobacco and alcohol, it’s worth the effort.