Despite tobacco manufacturers’ social responsibility claims about switching to less harmful products and strict marketing regulations, smoking is still being heavily promoted in emerging markets. This strategic paradox is highlighted by this research that provides fresh insights into young adult smokers’ exposure and reaction to unrestricted tobacco marketing in Vietnam. A survey with 440 responses tested a conceptual model relating the impacts of unregulated tobacco promotion on emotional responses (i.e. pleasure, arousal and dominance–PAD), and subsequent smoking approach behaviours. This model, tested using partial least square structural equation modelling, proved appropriate and well-explained by most constructs. The results demonstrated significant positive impact of tobacco marketing on young smokers’ emotions, particularly pleasure and arousal that increased smoking approach behaviours, such as smoking, tobacco purchase intention, seeking tobacco-related information and communicating with others about smoking. The need for more enforced evidence-based marketing regulations is highlighted and future research avenues discussed.