Companies Fail To Regulate Pro-Smoking Content In Smartphone Apps

Since the adoption of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) by 168 member countries in 2005, it has been illegal for companies to publicly advertise tobacco products via any medium — including the internet. But as News-Medical reports, the tobacco industry is circumventing this public health convention by exploiting lax oversight in the smartphone app market, peddling pro-smoking, often youth-targeted digital content in violation of international and local laws.

A recent study on tobacco advertising undertaken by the University of Sidney finds that the popular Apple and Android app marketplaces are filled with “pro-tobacco” apps — i.e., apps that provide information on various tobacco brands, point users towards tobacco vendors, or contain depictions or simulations of tobacco product use — that do not meet most countries’ regulatory standards:

“The regulation of these apps is lagging behind the legislation in Australia and many other countries which ban tobacco advertising including through the internet and virtual stores,” said Nasser Dhim, lead author of the study and a PhD candidate from the [University of Sidney’s] School of Public Health.

“This is despite the fact that the Apple and Android app stores have the technological infrastructure to block the sale of apps in accordance with local laws. As we show in our study Apple has already used this technology to ban access to certain content on its app store, in both China and Saudi Arabia.”

The study identified 107 English language pro-smoking apps looking at the two dominant marketplaces – 65 from the Apple app store and 42 from the Android app store.

By February 2012, the pro-smoking apps available in Google Play were downloaded by an average of 11 million users worldwide over the lifetime of the apps. These figures are only for the Android apps as those for Apple apps are unavailable but are likely to be even higher, given the greater popularity of its store.

Strikingly, many of these apps are available under categories more likely to appeal to children, such as “Entertainment” and “Games” — others, ironically, under “Lifestyle” and “Health and Fitness.” Smoking simulation apps might be cleverly branded as resources to help smokers kick the habit — but the University of Sydney study’s Nasser Dhim believes they actual serve a far more nefarious purpose. “This is because other independent studies have shown that such virtual images of cigarettes are more likely to trigger smoking craving behavior than to help them quit,” Dhim says. And youth-targeted advertising aimed at recruiting lifelong users at a vulnerable age is nothing new for alcohol and tobacco distributors.

Unfortunately, despite a concerted anti-tobacco backlash by elected officials in the last decade, global smoking rates are still quite high and investment in anti-smoking initiatives relatively low — this, despite the fact that investments in anti-tobacco programs can have up to a 50:1 return on investment.