Social media cannabis ads frequently violate state regulations 

Nearly one-third of social media posts from Illinois cannabis dispensaries violated advertising regulations, according to a recent study from the University of Illinois Chicago. The posts included ads that may have appealed to youth or that made health claims, both which are prohibited by state law. 

The study, published in the Journal of Cannabis Research, looked at posts on Facebook and Twitter, now known as X, from 74 of the state’s 75 dispensaries in the year 2020. Researchers analyzed the posts — more than 7,000 from Facebook and 2,000 from Twitter — for violations of the Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act.

Researchers divided the violations into three categories: ads that may have appealed to youth under 21; ads that made health claims; and ads that had other violations, such as depicting cannabis consumption or showing an image of a cannabis leaf or bud.

Overall, 31% of the posts included at least one violation. Roughly 1 in 10 potentially appealed to youth by, for example, using an animal or cartoon in the ad. Slightly more posts, about 11%, included health claims, such as that cannabis can help with diabetes, despite the law prohibiting health claims in ads. Nearly 17% of posts fell into the “other” violations category.

“Research on tobacco, alcohol and e-cigarettes suggests that advertising, including on social media, can impact adolescent use,” said Samantha Marinello, a postdoctoral research associate in the School of Public Health and lead author of the study. “Additionally, health claims, whether or not they are supported by scientific evidence, can create a ‘health halo effect,’ which leads to positive perceptions of recreational use.”

The researchers said the results are likely an undercount of the ads that could appeal to youth because ads could contain other criteria that didn’t violate Illinois law but still might attract youth, such as showing edibles that look like candy.

Recreational dispensaries were just as likely to make health claims as dispensaries that sold cannabis for medical use, they found. These claims can be problematic, the researchers explained. If customers think cannabis will help with a particular condition, they may not go to a doctor for treatment.

The study also examined whether marketing appeared to disproportionately target Black and Latino people and low-income communities, but they did not find this to be the case. 

The number of violations suggests dispensaries are not doing a good enough job regulating themselves, the researchers said.

“Systemic monitoring and enforcement is needed to ensure compliance with advertising regulations,” they wrote.

The other authors of the study are Lisa Powell of UIC’s School of Public Health and Rebecca Valek, previously of UIC and now at the Oregon Health and Science University. 

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