Pro-smoking apps for smartphones the latest tobacco advertising outlet

23 October 2012

A screenshot of one of the pro-smoking apps which lets users pretend they are smoking a cigarette.
A screenshot of one of the pro-smoking apps which lets users pretend they are smoking a cigarette.

Pro-smoking content, some featuring explicit cigarette brand images, is being promoted in smartphone apps reaching millions of users worldwide, including teenagers and children.

The easy availability of such apps in violation of Australia's ban on tobacco advertising is the focus of research by the University of Sydney, published today in the British Medical Journal.

"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'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.

The research defined 'pro-smoking' content as any app that, for example, explicitly provided information about brands of tobacco, where to buy tobacco products or images of tobacco brands or cigarettes.

Smoking simulation apps, which can show virtual electronic cigarettes that users can inhale and exhale or feature games where users pass a cigarette among game characters, were also classified as pro-smoking.

"These simulation apps include such examples as Hotsmoke, where the virtual cigarette burns faster if you inhale faster and MyAshTray which simulates an ashtray where you can drop your ash and receive message such as 'Would be even better with a beer in your hand!'," Nasser Dhim said.

"This is because other independent studies have shown that such virtual images of cigarettes are more likely to trigger smoking craving behaviour than to help them quit."

When the developer chooses a retail category to sell the app under in both the Apple and Android stores they are free to nominate multiple retail categories and they can also specify which countries they want their app to be published in.

Pro-smoking apps are available under multiple categories such as 'Health and Fitness', 'Entertainment,' 'Games' and 'Lifestyle'.

"The availability of these apps, which feature high quality graphics, in 'Game' and 'Entertainment' categories increases their appeal to teens and children. While the Apple app store shows a warning about content before the app is downloaded the Android store does not. It is also worth noting that app stores are accessible from tablet computers which are increasingly used by school children."

The World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control bans advertising and promotion of tobacco products in all media including the internet. Advertisement and promotion of tobacco products are defined in the convention as 'any form of commercial communication, recommendation or action with the aim, effect or likely effect of promoting a tobacco product or tobacco use either directly or indirectly'.

"So the issue of these apps violating laws on tobacco advertising goes well beyond Australian and applies to all signatories to the convention including the United Kingdom, Sweden and South African which have a complete ban on online ads.

"These companies already have the infrastructure to comply with this WHO convention on tobacco and many countries' own national laws restricting tobacco advertising, including to minors," said Associate Professor Lyndal Trevena, a contributing author to the study together with Dr Becky Freeman, both from the University's School of Public Health.

"They should immediately move to apply that capability to restricting the sale of these pro-smoking apps."

A 2011 survey found that smartphones account for 67 percent of all mobile phone handsets in Australia but their use is increasing exponentially and it is expected that in the near future all mobile phones will be smartphones.

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