Health experts uncover pro-smoking smartphone apps
Researchers fear apps are a new way for tobacco companies to exploit loopholes in restrictions on their marketing activities
- guardian.co.uk, Monday 22 October 2012 19.11 EDT
Researchers who uncovered the existence of such apps, some of which use cartoons, fear it is a new way for tobacco companies to exploit loopholes in restrictions on their marketing activities in order to promote their products.
Australian researchers, writing in the medical journal Tobacco Control, say they came across 107 apps that promoted smoking in some way when they checked the Apple and Android Market app stores in February, Sixty-five were in the Apple App Store and the other 42 in Android Market's equivalent. By that month a total of about 11m people used the 42 such apps held by Android Market.
Their paper "identifies a new trend of promoting tobacco products in a new medium with global reach, a huge consumer base of various age groups and less strict regulation policies", they write. The apps included images of particular brands, told users where they could buy tobacco products, provided cigarette brands' packaging to use as wallpaper on their smartphone and let smokers simulate smoking behaviour.
Others replace a phone's battery icon to an image of a burning cigarette, detail how to roll a cigarette or defend smokers' rights.
The Department of Health condemned the apps as "disgraceful" but said that UK law may not be able to do much to combat them, as many may be produced overseas.
The researchers, led by Nasser Bin Dihm of Sydney Medical School's school of public health, said the apps appear to be breaching the World Health Organisation's landmark framework convention on tobacco control. And they voiced concerns that apps are being misportrayed by Apple and Android Market by being available in categories labelled "health and fitness", "entertainment", "games" and "lifestyle".
"These apps could also easily attract teens and children due to their high-quality graphics and availability under the 'game' and 'entertainment' categories in the app stores. Pro-smoking apps that show smoking is 'cool' in a cartoon game and provide a chance to explore the available cigarette brands and even simulate the smoking experience with high quality, free apps could potentially increase teens' risk of smoking initiation", they say.
Professor John Britton, chair of the Royal College of Physicians' tobacco advisory group and an NHS consultant, said introducing plain packaging of cigarettes, as many medical groups argue, would lessen the apps' appeal to young people as distinctive branding would be much less familiar.
Deborah Arnott, the chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, said the UK should follow the example of the United States and Canada and force tobacco firms to reveal what sort of promotional activities they are undertaking and how much they are spending on each. "The measure we have in this country to control tobacco promotion apply to 20th century techniques, not 21st century ones such as the internet and smartphones. Apps are exactly the sort of thing that will attract young people to sample tobacco products because they glamorise them", Arnott added.