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Study says despite restrictions, recreational cannabis companies use marketing that appeals to kids

Photo: Marijuana and Social Media

Many recreational cannabis companies market their products in a way that appeals to children and teens, flouting state regulations, according to a new study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. This marketing is easily viewed by people of all ages on social media.

“I had expected that cannabis companies were unlikely to fully adhere to existing guidelines,” says lead author Megan Moreno, M.D., M.S.Ed., M.P.H., division chief of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Some cannabis companies generated dozens of social media posts per day, and there is no current system in place to monitor or enforce these regulations. However, it was surprising to see how the presence of guidelines made a difference between states.”

In their study, the researchers evaluated one year of posts on Facebook and Instagram by retail companies from four states in which recreational marijuana use is legal (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington). They looked for both restricted content (such as discounts, modeling overconsumption, youth-focused messaging, and health benefits) and required warnings (limited to age 21 and older, avoiding impaired driving, and health risks).

The researchers analyzed 2,660 posts from 14 businesses. Despite being prohibited, discounts or promotions were found in approximately 35% of all posts. Overconsumption was found in 12%. Content containing warnings, despite being required, was present in less than half.

For example, Washington State prohibits displaying branded products, such as t-shirts with a company logo. About 1% of the posts on social media from Washington state cannabis companies still contained this content. However, in states without this regulation, these types of posts appeared between five and 10 times more frequently. So while regulation did not guarantee compliance, it seemed to have an effect.

The researchers say that content designed to appeal to youth culture (for example, with recognizable characters) and budget limitations (such as discounts) is clearly still being used, despite current regulations.

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

She stresses that parents need to be aware that children are likely being exposed to this type of content.

“Parents should talk with their kids about how cannabis companies seek to influence them by using youth-friendly approaches, like using cartoon characters and memes,” says Moreno.

The findings are equally vital for policymakers.

“It is important for them to know that the restrictions and requirements for how cannabis companies use social media are meaningful,” says Moreno. “Steps to make these rules more impactful include having monitoring systems in place and designating consequences for violations of these restrictions and requirements.”

Press contact:

Sara Benzel
608-852-2605
sbenzel@uwhealth.org

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