A Reuters investigation published on Friday found one of its iQOS social media ambassadors in Russia, Alina Tapilina, was only 21 and had been paid by the tobacco giant to promote heated tobacco products online.
Philip Morris International recently told PRWeek that it only uses influencers that are 25 and above, which is the minimum age permitted for tobacco influencers in the UK, but not elsewhere in the world.
The company told PRWeek: "Upon learning of these allegations, PMI immediately initiated and concluded an internal investigation and took swift action to address an instance of influencer engagement in breach of our digital influencer guidance.
"We were deeply disappointed to discover this breach and are grateful that it was brought to our attention in order that we could take swift and comprehensive steps to address our mistake.
"We immediately suspended our product-related digital influencer actions to avoid the risk of similar incidents occurring in the future. We are not proud that a mistake was made, but what really matters is outcomes."
In Alina Tapilina’s post (pictured above), which was still published on Instagram at the time this article was published, she holds iQOS 3 products and describes some of the changes in the new version of iQOS, including "less smell", a quicker charging time and that it is "90 per cent safer than cigarettes" asking her social media followers if they have "switched to iQOS yet".
Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids president Matthew Myers said the Reuters investigation demonstrates "Philip Morris’ utter lack of sincerity when they promise to market IQOS only to existing smokers and not to youth and non-smokers – a promise the FDA relied on when it recently authorised the sale of IQOS in the United States."
Recently, the US Food and Drug Administration authorised the sale of iQOS in the US, but with strict caveats including that it markets the products responsibly.
In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority has launched a probe into the use of influencers to promote a rival's e-cigarette product called Vype, including social media posts by singer Lily Allen and fashion label House of Holland. Other tobacco giants told PRWeek they use 'earned social media' tactics to promote their products.
Myers claimed PMI’s move to suspend influencer marketing ahead of the Reuters article being published was as "an act of pre-emptive damage control" and that the tobacco giant "is changing its behavior only when caught red-handed".
"Their claim to market IQOS only to existing smokers has been exposed as the fraud that it is," Myers added.
"For months, Philip Morris has marketed IQOS on social media to millions of young people, and they didn’t stop until they were caught. While Philip Morris tried to spin the issue as an isolated mistake of paying a 21-year-old social media influencer in Russia, Reuters documented multiple examples of how they have marketed IQOS on Instagram, often using young, attractive influencers."
Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids claims that from March 2018 to March 2019, social media posts using the hashtag #iqos have been viewed 179 million times on Instagram and Twitter, according to social media analytics tool Keyhole.
This article has been updated with a response from Philip Morris International.