The tobacco industry may be using websites such as YouTube to get around a ban on advertising cigarettes, a study says. Researchers in New Zealand studied the video-sharing site and found a number of pro-tobacco videos “consistent with indirect marketing activity by tobacco companies or their proxies”.They say governments should consider regulating such content on the net.

Tobacco companies have always denied using the net to promote cigarettes.

“Tobacco companies stand to benefit greatly from the marketing potential of Web 2.0, without themselves being at significant risk of being implicated in violating any laws or advertising codes,” the researchers wrote.

Amanda Sandford, research manager at anti-smoking group Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) said the study’s findings were “disturbing but fairly typical of tobacco industry activity”.

“As soon as one avenue of promotion is closed, companies will seek out alternative means of promoting their product and will do anything to get round advertising restrictions,” she told BBC News.

“It indicates that their key audience is young people. There is a need for much stronger control over what appears on the internet.”

But Catherine Armstrong, a spokesperson for British American Tobacco, one of the firms studied in the report, said it was “not our policy to use social networking sites such as Facebook or YouTube to promote our tobacco product brands”.

“Not even the authors of this report claim we have done so,” she said. “Using social media could breach local advertising laws and our own International Marketing Standards, which apply to our companies worldwide.

“Our employees, agencies and service providers should never use social media to promote our tobacco brands.”

Several tobacco firms signed up to a voluntary agreement to restrict direct advertising on websites in 2002.

YouTube said that it does not “accept any paid-for tobacco advertising anywhere in the world”.

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