Virtual smoking apps are heavily criticised for influencing teenagers

Advertising cigarettes isn’t an easy game for manufacturers. In fact it is actually illegal within the UK and many other countries around the world. The Tobacco Advertising & Promotion Act 2002 was enforced in November of that year in the UK, and most cigarette advertising came to an abrupt end on 14th February 2003. This included all billboards and printed publications. By July of 2005 came a slow ‘phasing out’ period for other methods of promotion, (e.g. direct mail and sponsorship) and most advertising is now banned on the internet with regards to cigarettes.

Following the legislation, manufacturers instead focused their efforts on using the actual cigarette packet as a weapon in their marketing efforts as well as relying on the display of their products in shops and supermarkets to attract the eye of customers and bring in sales.

Unfortunately though for cigarette companies, The Health Act 2009 was then introduced by the government and as a result, from 6 April 2012, tobacco displays at the point of sale were banned across England in supermarkets and will also be banned in smaller shops from 6 April 2015.

Despite all this, it has not stopped the creators of smartphone apps from conjuring up slightly naughty and free-to-obtain pro-smoking apps that researchers now warn could influence youngsters into lighting up. This is on top of an ever-growing number of films that are depicting their stars with cigarettes and also risk encouraging kids to smoke, which we reported back in July.

The latest warnings come from researchers led by Nasser BinDhim at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health in Sydney, Australia. The authors comment: “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 that 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.”

The study authors conducted their study by browsing around the popular Apple App store and Android Market. Keywords searched included ‘cigarette’, ‘smoke’, ‘smoking’, ‘cigar’ and ‘tobacco’. To their amazement, they found 107 apps that they argue encourage people to smoke and also breach advertising bans and promotion of tobacco products.

Their research has recently been published in the Tobacco Control medical journal. In particularly, the most popular apps were for smoking simulation. In total, there were 42 smoking-related apps discovered on the Android Market, which had been accessed more than 11 million times. On the Apple App Store, 65 apps were available for download.

One particular app that caused shock for researchers was a cartoon game called ‘Puff Pass’. In that game, users have to click on the characters that then begin to smoke and subsequently pass the cigarette on to other characters in the game.

The apps were first discovered back in February of this year and were available to download under the retail categories health and fitness, entertainment and games and lifestyle.

Cancer Society national tobacco control adviser Skye Kimura hit out at the tobacco companies attempting to manipulate young minds, saying: “More young people are using smartphones regardless of their demographic or economic makeup…So really it’s just about the industry manipulating the youth market again and finding ways to get around our legislation and the loopholes to advertise the products.”

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