On August 24, 2023, The New York Times Style section published an article – “A Viral Cigarette Brand? In 2023?” – about a cigarette startup company using social media to spread its message. The article was so glowing that the company thanked them publicly. We won’t want to use the name of the company; they’ve received enough free advertising. Of course, it is repugnant to make and market a product that addicts and kills, and we hope they are someday brought to justice. But this blog is about the marketing aid provided by The New York Times, and their promotion of what is potentially illegal activity.

The story focused on a social media influencer strategy to spread the word about these new cigarettes, something one of the influencers very positively dubbed “cigfluencing.” The influencers who have promoted the cigarettes also have blood on their hands, and as the article’s title alludes, they should know better in 2023.

The article also espouses activity that may be illegal. The 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act explicitly forbids the giving or mailing of free samples of cigarettes. The article covered two potential violations, framing them as clever marketing strategies. First, the article discusses giving away free samples at an avant garde clothing shop in New York. The article doesn’t actually say they are free, but simply “set out in a metal dish.” It doesn’t sound like anyone is charging for them. Second, the company mails influencers samples, and the article makes clear that they are free. In the article the fact that the cigarette company gave away cigarettes is not in question: “[Cigarette company owner] said he gave cigarettes to popular New York residents and event hosts in hopes that they would decide to mention them on social platforms.”

We know this type of social media marketing gets young people to start an addictive and deadly addiction, which is why the company is doing it. We here at ASH don’t usually comment on brands of cigarettes – they’re all deadly – as opposed to novel products that attract new victims. But in this case, it seems clear that the result of this campaign will be more people smoking, more addiction, more disease and more death. The New York Times will share responsibility for this tragedy.

We’ll encourage the FDA to look into the company’s practices. They may be held accountable. But who will hold The New York Times accountable?