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Cannabis Advertising Linked to Problematic Use in Teens, Study Claims

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Apr 15, 2021   
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Teens who frequently see billboard or storefront advertising for recreational cannabis products are more likely to use the drug weekly and to have symptoms of cannabis use disorder (CUD), according to new research published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Despite cannabis use being prohibited for under-21s in all states which permit recreational cannabis, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers behind this new study believe it indicates that “legalization may alter the ways that youth use cannabis,” even though this demographic is not directly addressed by recreational cannabis laws.

Youth exposed to advertising are seven times more likely to use cannabis weekly

The UNC Chapel Hill researchers used targeted advertisements on social media sites and apps to recruit a total of 172 teens, aged between 15 and 19, who were living in states with legal recreational cannabis and who reported using the drug at least once.

These teens were then asked about their history of cannabis use and their exposure to various forms of advertising for cannabis products. This included questions on whether they had seen or interacted with cannabis adverts on social media or in-person through physical billboards and storefront advertisements. The participants were also asked if they owned or were likely to buy cannabis-related merchandise, and if they had a favorite brand or strain of cannabis products and/or paraphernalia.

Those who reported seeing billboard or storefront ads had seven times the odds of reporting “frequent” cannabis use (defined as using cannabis four or more times per week) and nearly six times the odds of having symptoms associated with cannabis use disorder (CUD), as compared to those who reported never seeing physical advertisements.

Having a favorite brand of cannabis or a related product, such as rolling papers, was associated with three times higher odds of frequent use and CUD symptoms as compared to those with no brand preference. Those who reported owning or were likely to buy cannabis-branded merchandise were 23 times more likely to use cannabis frequently than those with no interest in merchandise.

Social media advertising operates differently, and affects youth differently

One notable finding from the study concerned the effects of social media advertising. In direct contrast to the effects seen with passive exposure to physical advertising, teens who reported occasionally seeing cannabis ads on Instagram were 85 percent less likely to use cannabis frequently than their peers who never saw these promotions. Those who came across these ads frequently were 93 percent less likely to report frequent use.

As the researchers note in their paper, this negative trend between Instagram and substance use has been seen in at least one earlier study. That study focused on examining associations between Instagram and cannabis use in young adults ages 18-29 and found an initial negative association between the two. However, that trend lost its statistical significance after controlling for factors including peer belonging, cannabis descriptive and alcohol injunctive norms, motives for Instagram participation, and social status.

This newer cannabis advertising study also found that teens who liked or followed promotions on Facebook were nearly 6 times more likely to specifically report high-intensity cannabis use, defined as spending at least 5-to-6 hours “stoned” on days where cannabis was used.

The UNC researchers theorize that Instagram’s algorithm could be promoting more user-generated content than Facebook, which might explain the difference in exposure effects seen here between the two social media platforms. Additionally, they reason that Instagram’s image-centric style might not allow for the same depth of text descriptions needed for the teens to understand and react to new products.

The effects of teenage cannabis use

The researchers conclude that while research into cannabis marketing is still in its relative infancy, similar research into alcohol and tobacco advertising would indicate that “associations between ads and use may not stop at experimentation – ad exposure may facilitate progression toward problematic use, and their association may even be causal.”

Problematic cannabis use in teens is a major concern. In the US, young adults have the highest rate of cannabis use disorder compared to other demographic groups and are the least likely to seek conventional treatment. While the long-term effects of occasional and problematic cannabis use in adolescence are not fully known, many studies have indicated a potential for future health risks. Teenage cannabis use has been linked to the increased usage of illicit drugs later in life and impaired cognition. Exposure to cannabis and stress in adolescence is associated with the development long-term anxiety disorders in adulthood, while young people struggling with mood disorders in conjunction with CUD are known to be at a higher risk for self-harm.

In light of the associations seen between CUD symptoms and passive advertising identified in this new study, the researchers advise that the potential collateral effect on youth should not be ignored as more states begin to accept recreational cannabis for adult-use. “States and other localities with legalized cannabis should exercise special caution regarding forms of marketing that promote brand identification and engagement with youth,” they conclude.


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