There are more than nine million posts tagged #vaping on Instagram, but starting soon, social media influencers will no longer be able to profit off of them.
The Facebook-owned social media platform said Wednesday it is banning “branded content that promotes goods such as vaping, tobacco products and weapons” and that enforcement will begin “in the coming weeks”.
Facebook and Instagram already ban regular advertisements from brand accounts for tobacco products, but up until now, companies have been able to turn an influencer’s post into sponsored advertisement content.
But concerns about teen vaping, as well as recent deaths linked to the practice, has led to deeper scrutiny of the industry worldwide. On Thursday, Canada’s health minister proposed banning the advertising and promotion of vaping products online and in public spaces and convenience stores.
For influencers whose income depends on posting sponsored tutorials, photos and reviews of vaping products on Instagram, the news is a major blow.
But even vaping influencers who use other platforms are worried, too. Matt Culley, 38, runs the Matt from SMM vaping channel on YouTube, which has 289,000 subscribers.
He said while teen vaping is definitely an issue that should be taken seriously, “there’s a lot of public hysteria, and we tend to overcorrect in situations like this.”
Culley has produced sponsored vlogs in the past but says the majority of his income comes from royalties on products he’s helped design. Still, he worries YouTube could change its policies towards vaping content at any time.
“There’s always been a concern among vape content creators on YouTube and stuff that at some point, YouTube could just wipe it all out and just say, ‘No vape content,'” Culley told Al Jazeera. “It’s never a good feeling when something you’ve invested tonnes of time in for years could get taken away at any moment.”
Michael Heller is the CEO of Talent Resources, an advertising agency that pairs lifestyle brands with social media influencers, including in the cannabis industry. He said the platform’s changing guidelines can pose a challenge for brands and content creators.
“We are looking at Instagram as becoming as powerful as television advertising has been, so we do consider the bigger picture as the platform enforces community guidelines,” Heller told Al Jazeera.
Those guidelines currently include a ban on advertising or selling cannabis, even if the post comes from a state where the drug is legal. Heller said vaping companies and influencers will soon face the same reality because of the new ban.
“The biggest takeaway is that Instagram is adapting to implement regulations on a greater advertising scale, so it’s our belief that any forthcoming regulation with vaping brands/products will mirror the way in which the tobacco industry had been regulated,” Heller said.
“What we’d like to see is that Instagram continues to regulate promotions in the interest of public health, but that they take an iterative approach with careful social listening to avoid their community guidelines impeding on the user or creator experience,” he added.
Culley agreed, saying when it comes to vaping content, companies could “regulate it with more like a scalpel, but Instagram and Facebook are deciding to take a blunt instrument to the whole thing.”
“It’s nuanced. If it’s a lifestyle Instagrammer with a couple million followers and it’s very clear that person has a younger audience, I don’t think that’s a responsible way to advertise,” Culley said. “If it’s a middle-aged person and it’s vape-specific and they have an older audience, that’s a different story.”
The updated Instagram guidelines come on the same day the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned tobacco companies from promoting e-cigarettes on social media sites, following an investigation into their Instagram posts.
The decision is unrelated to ASA’s move, an Instagram spokeswoman told Reuters News Agency.
Anti-smoking advocates praised the move, which Instagram said is the first time it has implemented restrictions on the types of items promoted using branded content.
“It is imperative that Facebook and Instagram not only swiftly enact these policy changes, but also see that they are strictly enforced,” Matthew Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told Reuters News Agency.
“Tobacco companies have spent decades targeting kids; social media companies must not be complicit in this strategy,” he added.