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Are Teens Passive Smoking via Their iPhones?

A recent study from the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney uncovered  107 pro-smoking apps downloadable from smartphone application stores globally.  Sold in retailer categories that include ‘Health and Fitness’, ‘Entertainment’, ‘Games’ and ‘Lifestyle’, the  pro-smoking apps that show smoking is ‘cool’ in a cartoon game, and even simulate the smoking experience, will be of particular concern to parents.  The study points out that the pro-smoking apps appear to be in contravention of Article 13 of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which bans advertising and promotion of tobacco products in all media including the internet.

While smartphones now account for 37% of all mobile phone handsets in Australia, it is predicted that smartphones will soon become the only mobile phone handset for around 6 billion global users.  A recent UK study by a telecommunications regulator found that in the UK, 47% of teenagers own a smartphone, and 60% of teens report being ‘highly addicted’ to smartphones.  The market for downloadable applications continues to grow, with Apple customers downloading 25 billion apps in 2012, 10 billion more than the previous year.  This makes the smartphone a huge marketing platform with global reach.

In Hotsmoke, an Apple app, the user picks a cigarette from a cigarette box that resembles known brands, and can then smoke it virtually by holding the phone close to the mouth.  The cigarette burns with the rate of inhalation and exhalation, and smoke appears on the screen with exhalation.  The user can shake the phone to discard the ash.

In Puff Puff Pass, users select a cigarette, cigar or pipe, and collect points by ordering game characters to smoke it and then pass it to other characters.  Do it in a fast pace, and the correct sequence, and more points are collected.

The assertion by some smoking simulation apps that they are smoking cessation apps is unlikely to wash with concerned parents.

The study notes there are no data available about who downloads these apps, but the high quality 3D designs, free access, and the share-ability on social media of some of these apps, makes them particularly appealing to the teen consumer.  Unlike the Apple app store, the Android Market websites have no warning message about age restrictions when users attempt to access an app that contains smoking or ‘high maturity’ content.

The Sydney University study points out that like all or most of the ‘health-related’ apps, no studies have attempted to evaluate the effects of the pro-smoking content in the app stores.  However, it is known that exposure to pro-smoking messages can increase smoking among adolescents.  The study’s authors cite a review examining what is known about pro-smoking content in various media channels which found that exposure to favourable media images about smoking provided youth with encouragement to start smoking.

Pro-smoking apps not only appear to violate WHO guidelines, but also local laws of countries that have adopted tobacco advertising bans.  A quick check of the app store via an iphone here in Sydney showed that Puff Puff Pass Lite is available free and was "recently made #1 in the US App Store and #1 app in 5 other countries.” Australia has had a ban on tobacco advertising since 1976.

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