Recreational cannabis companies use marketing that appeals to adolescents, despite restrictions

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Published: Jan. 28, 2022 at 11:47 AM CST|Updated: Jan. 28, 2022 at 3:17 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - A University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health study found that many recreational cannabis companies market their products to appeal to children and teens, despite state regulations prohibiting it.

UW Professor of Pediatrics Dr. Megan Moreno led the study, which evaluated one year of publicly displayed posts on Facebook and Instagram by retail companies from four states in which recreational marijuana use is legal: Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

Moreno said people of all ages can easily view these posts on social media, making it especially important to have conversations with kids about social media.

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

Researchers evaluated a total of 2,660 posts from 14 businesses, looking for both restricted content — such as branded promotions or discounts, modeling or normalization of overconsumption, youth-focused messaging and health benefits — and required warnings — limited to age 21 and older, avoiding impaired driving and advisory notice of health risks.

Despite restrictions, discounts or promotions were found in about 35% of all posts. Less than half of all posts contained content warnings, despite being required.

“I had expected that cannabis companies were unlikely to fully adhere to existing guidelines,” Moreno said. “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 on this scale.”

Moreno said though regulations are in place, companies are still clearly using content designed to appeal to youth culture, including young models or recognizable cartoon characters. Additionally, people with budget limitations are being targeted with offers of promotions and discounts.

“Given that the vast majority of youth and adolescents use social media, it is important for parents to know that cannabis companies are actively sharing youth-friendly and restricted content in these places,” Moreno said. “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.”

Moreno said the findings of the study are equally important for policymakers to consider.

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

The study authors also recommend considering banning cannabis companies from using social media completely because it is so readily accessible to children and teens.

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