The tobacco industry is targeting a new generation of smokers with sophisticated marketing designed to associate smoking with rebellion, social prestige and attractiveness, researchers from the tobacco control research centre ASPIRE 2025, at the University of Otago, say.
The researchers have published two blogs ahead of World No Tobacco Day on Sunday, which has a focus this year on protecting young people from manipulation by the tobacco industry.
Co-Director of ASPIRE 2025, Professor Janet Hoek, says the strategic importance of young people to tobacco companies first became apparent in industry documents, where they described today’s teenagers as tomorrow’s potential regular customers.
“Industry documents show tobacco companies deliberately targeted young people, just as they reach a time of transition and vulnerability. We are concerned to see the same tactics being used today.”
She says social media platforms, known for their high reach to young people, have provided new opportunities for tobacco brands to replace mass media advertising with personal, co-created content.
Professor Hoek says as well as exploiting the opportunities provided by new media, tobacco companies have developed new smoked-tobacco products designed to appeal to young people.
“Capsule cigarettes, which feature intriguing flavours and technologies, have achieved rapid growth in otherwise declining markets and appeal more to non-smokers than to smokers.”
Professor Richard Edwards, also a co-director of ASPIRE 2025, says this covert marketing requires a strong policy response.
“Preventing youth uptake is much easier than supporting smoking cessation. Ensuring young people are not enticed into smoking will not only bring enormous population health benefits, but could reduce disparities in smoking prevalence between Māori and non-Māori, and the many health inequities that follow.”
He notes that reducing smoking uptake among young people will maintain long-term declines in smoking prevalence and points out there is very strong public support for policy measures.
Andrew Waa, a fellow co-director of ASPIRE 2025, says there is no shortage of measures that could be introduced.
“If we are serious about reducing youth smoking uptake, we need to increase the legal age of tobacco purchase from 18 to 21, as some US states and localities have done. We should also reduce tobacco’s availability – it makes no sense to encourage young people not to smoke, while allowing tobacco to be sold at every dairy and service station.”
The researchers argue there are strong grounds to focus on preventing smoking uptake among young people, which they say should complement measures that encourage and support smokers to quit.
“More than 50 years after the publication of landmark reports by the US Surgeon General and the UK Royal College of Physicians, which established the substantial harms caused by smoking, we are still not doing enough to protect young people from tobacco companies’ influence. World No Tobacco Day is an urgent reminder that we need more comprehensive action.”