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Tobacco Companies Using Smartphone Apps to Encourage Smoking
Smartphone apps are the ubiquitous programs available for download by the billions of adults and children across the globe with access to modern cell phone technology. According to the results of a study published in 2014 in the journal Tobacco Control, cigarette manufacturers appear to be using these apps as a means of targeting current and potential future smokers with pro-smoking messages. A significant number of these applications seem geared to appeal to children.
Smartphone App Basics
Smartphone apps are programs small enough to download and install on the average advanced cell phone. Some of these programs feature fairly unsophisticated presentations; however, many others feature highly sophisticated presentations that take full advantage of modern-day graphics and other notable design elements. The average consumer has access to literally millions of downloadable smartphone apps that cover a vast array of topics and purposes. While some of these applications must be purchased (typically for small-to-moderate amounts of money), many others come free of charge. In the U.S., the two main distribution platforms for most smartphone apps are maintained by the two most prominent global cell phone creators: Apple and Google (Android).
Tobacco cigarettes contain the highly addictive drug nicotine, as well as roughly 600 other ingredients. When ignited, the average cigarette emits over 4,000 additional substances, several dozen of which are known for their ability to significantly increase the odds for developing several types of cancer. All smokers are exposed to risks for nicotine addiction and the eventual development of serious health problems. However, teenagers and younger children face especially prominent versions of these risks, the American Lung Association reports. In fact, teenagers who start smoking become addicted to nicotine far more easily than their adult counterparts, and addiction-related symptoms in this age group may appear after the consumption of no more than 100 cigarettes. Over a quarter of the 3,900 teens and preteens who start using cigarettes every day will turn into habitual smokers. About 50 percent of teen and preteen smokers will eventually die from smoking-related causes. In addition, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of all smoking adults took up cigarette use while age 17 or younger.
Smoking-Oriented Smartphone Apps
In the study published in Tobacco Control, researchers from Saudi Arabia and Australia’s University of Sydney examined the availability of smartphone apps that directly or indirectly promote cigarette smoking. They undertook their project, in part, because of the near universal access to smartphone apps and the potential of these apps to circumvent laws or public health efforts designed to prevent or diminish cigarette use. In early 2012, the researchers conducted a search for smoking-related applications in the online marketplaces maintained by Google and Apple. All told, they found 107 such apps made available by one of the two vendors (65 through Apple and 42 through Google).
The researchers concluded that most of the pro-smoking apps are free. In many cases, these apps have features that appear to be designed specifically for their appeal to teenagers or other underage individuals who cannot legally smoke in the U.S. Examples of these features include depictions of cartoon characters and graphics-intensive games oriented around smoking-related themes. Some of these games prominently depict acts of cigarette use or require participants to simulate smoking a cigarette. In addition, some of the available apps clearly display the brand names of cigarettes popular among adult smokers.
The authors of the study believe that many of the smoking-related smartphone apps clearly represent an attempt by cigarette manufacturers to identify and cultivate new smokers. Since the majority of new smokers begin tobacco use while under the age of 18, the manufacturers have largely oriented their apps toward teenagers, a group that bears a disproportionate amount of harm from cigarette use. As a result of these findings, some public health advocates have begun urging both Google and Apple to take steps to stop teenage smartphone users from purchasing and/or downloading pro-smoking apps. These advocates also urge cigarette manufacturers to stop creating or endorsing teen-oriented smoking applications, or allowing third-party app creators to use well-known cigarette brand names. In addition, they urge the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to take a hard look at the legality of using smartphone apps to advertise cigarette use among underage consumers.