Pro-tobacco content on Facebook and YouTube is glamorising smoking among the young, warn health groups. Leading health organisations have expressed alarm at how the internet is being used to promote smoking.

Tobacco companies deny using the online world to market their brands, but there is mounting concern that social networking sites are glamorising smoking, especially among young people.

British American Tobacco (BAT) has been forced to conduct a damage limitation exercise after it emerged that several of its employees had established fan sites on Facebook for the company’s Lucky Strike and Dunhill brands, apparently without the company’s knowledge.

Ash, the anti-smoking group, has also established that BAT hired an online marketing firm, iKineo, to promote the Lucky Strike brand in South Africa.

iKineo boasted on its website that it had “extended the Lucky Strike campaign into the digital space, using it to mobilise a powerful underground movement to advocate the brand”.

Other tobacco companies have also looked to the internet. Thousands of smokers – who had to confirm they were over 18 simply by clicking on an online box – have accessed a website allowing them to design packets for new blends of Camel cigarettes, manufactured by the American firm RJ Reynolds (RJR). The resulting exercise saw the launch of a range of new packets that extended the Camel brand and saw it climb up internet search engine rankings.

The market research exercise did not breach rules prohibiting tobacco advertising, but Robin Hewings, Cancer Research UK’s tobacco control manager, said: “The industry has a history of searching for loopholes which allow its lethal products to target young people.”

It is not always clear who has established the pro-smoking sites. In 1997 RJR withdrew its Joe Camel cartoon figure from its advertising campaigns after the American Medical Association published a report claiming that young children could recognise him more easily than Mickey Mouse. Now a Facebook search for “Joe Camel” brings up more than 25 sites dedicated to the character.

YouTube also carries old cigarette adverts that would fall foul of the comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising, recognised by 168 countries if they were aired on television. An analysis of 163 YouTube tobacco brand-related videos, carried out by researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand, found that 71% featured “pro-tobacco content”. Many of the clips are highly sophisticated in their use of tobacco packets. One “freeze frame” video shows a Marlboro cigarette packet being turned into a Transformer robot similar to those featured in the blockbuster film.

Internal industry papers released as a result of legal action reveal that tobacco firms have been experimenting with the internet as a marketing weapon for years. US tobacco company Lorillard ran an online competition at the start of the millennium allowing young people to vote on their favourite music videos. The competition was ostensibly designed to promote the company’s slogan “Tobacco is Whacko if You are a Teen” – a message that has been attacked by anti-tobacco campaigners for implying that smoking was acceptable among adults.

Fresh concerns about the tobacco firms’ use of cyberspace were raised last week when it emerged that the annual Global Tobacco Networking Forum had held a workshop on social media for thousands of delegates in the cigarette industry. Those attending also heard a talk on “Social Media in Regulated Markets” from Jason Falls, a leading expert on internet branding.

In an emailed response to the Observer, Falls said he was unable to discuss his talk, citing the conference’s rules barring speakers from discussing the subject with the media. But Falls emailed a copy of a presentation that he gives to other clients in which he discusses how “it is entirely possible to leverage social media marketing and the social web as a company in a regulated industry”.

The presentation notes: “Regulations and guidelines are not impediments. They are necessary and opportunities to innovate in the social media space.”

Professor Terence Stephenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “I would like the people who are responsible for these new forms of social media to be more responsible in the content they allow, especially content which glamorises and promotes smoking to young people.”

A BAT spokeswoman insisted it was not company policy to use social networking sites to promote its brands after the allegations first surfaced in an academic paper at the University of Sydney in Australia. “Our employees, agencies and service providers should never use social media to promote our tobacco brands,” BAT said.