BAT claimed its posts that included pictures of Lily Allen, Bohemian Rhapsody star Rami Malek and other famous faces only “provided information” to users and were not adverts.
The advertising watchdog disagreed, stating in a ruling that the posts “clearly went beyond” providing facts and were intended to promote vaping products.
Adverts for BAT, Ama Vape Lab, Attitude Vapes and Mylo Vapes were all banned in a decision hailed as a “major step forward” in stopping companies marketing addictive products online.
Mark Hurley, director of international communications at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, welcomed the decision but said social media companies must now take action.
“Urgent policy change is needed from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to prevent BAT and other tobacco companies from using social media to advertise their harmful products to young people around the world,” Mr Hurley said.
The ruling is the latest pressure on social media companies to clean up their platforms which have been used to flout advertising rules.
In May, more than 125 anti-smoking organisations called on social media companies to immediately prohibit influencer marketing of tobacco and e-cigarettes on their platforms.
Tobacco companies use influencers’ accounts to get around existing online advertising bans, but the social media companies have not yet changed their polices on influencer marketing of tobacco.
Outside the UK, BAT continues to engage in a social media campaign to promote its e-cigarettes on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
“The important thing is to stop companies doing this again and to stop them claiming they are not advertising when that’s exactly what they’re doing,” said Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).
“Research shows that young people do think e-cigarettes are being advertised to them online.”
“Tobacco companies will try to get away with what they can in every jurisdiction.”
Wednesday’s ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority came in response to a complaint by ASH earlier this year that posts from BAT and others broke advertising rules by promoting unlicensed, nicotine-containing e-cigarettes and their components on Instagram.
Advertising e-cigarettes online is banned in the UK but companies can provide information as long as it is only available to those who actively seek it out and is not promotional in nature. The regulator said BAT’s Instagram advertising campaign broke both of these rules.
Posts from a public social media account can be automatically distributed to people who have not actively sought it out, the ASA said.
BAT advertised its e-cigarettes under pictures of singer Lily Allen using a vape, while other congratulated Rami Malek on his Bafta best actor award for Bohemian Rhapsody.
In further posts, model Olivia Jade Attwood was shown smoking an e-cigarette. The ASA ruled that this broke another rule that prevents nicotine products being advertised with the image of anyone under 25 or appearing to be under 25.
Attitude Vapes posted a black-and-white image of someone smoking an e-cigarette with the caption “Attitude is everything #LiquidsWithAttitude”.
A post by Mylo Vape included a picture of a woman with an e-cigarette and the caption “#repost rae-eleanor loving her #mylo”.
In the case of BAT, the posts contained “unrelated content about awards ceremonies or other events, and the imagery of Lily Allen, Olivia Jade Attwood and House of Holland branding were all significantly featured without being directly related to the product itself”.
The ASA banned the ads, warning that they “should not be made from a public Instagram account in future, unless they had taken steps to ensure they would only be distributed to those following their account and would not be seen by other users”.
Simon Cleverly, group head of corporate affairs at BAT, said: “In relation to the complaint that we were promoting unlicensed, nicotine-containing e-cigarettes and their components on Instagram, while we believed that the content included in the complaint was compliant with the ASA’s CAP Code, we will abide by the ASA’s decision and recommendation to remove the relevant posts and amend our Instagram account settings.”
A spokesperson for Instagram’s owner, Facebook, said: “We have never allowed adverts that promote the sale or use of tobacco or electronic cigarettes – regardless of country. Earlier this year we also updated our policy to restrict organic content that depicts the sale or purchase of tobacco products to over 18s.”