Pro-smoking smartphone apps spark a fiery debate

Text by: Sam DAVIES
5 min

In a study this week, Australian researchers identified more than 100 smartphone applications that appear to promote smoking. The study highlights the challenges governments face in keeping tobacco advertising laws in step with technology.


Are cigarette producers and promoters breathing new life into the term ‘social smoker’?

Applications (apps) designed for smartphones that tacitly or overtly encourage smoking are shaping up to be the latest front in the battle against cigarette advertising.

A study released this week in the British Medical Journal’s public health magazine, Tobacco Control, put the spotlight on the so-far overlooked phenomenon of using smartphone apps to promote or encourage smoking.

A team of Australian public health researchers at the University of Sydney identified 107 apps promoting a pro-smoking message on the Apple App Store and Android Market (now Google Play).

Just as the range of tobacco products is diverse, so too the types of apps, from simple wallpaper downloads of popular brands to programmes that simulate stubbing out of cigarettes, and animated games that recreate social smoking situations. The apps are either free or downloadable for a small fee, and while some include measures to verify that users are above a certain age, others do not.

Addictive gameplay

One app, called 'Ashtray', transforms the smartphone screen into a garbage can. A short tap on the screen deposits cigarette ash into the bin, while a prolonged tap discards the entire cigarette.

Users can choose between three backgrounds for the garbage can, or use their phone camera to place it in a photo of their favourite spot for a smoke.

In another app, 'Puff Puff Pass', users select a caricature then choose a pipe, cigar or cigarette, and venue (lounge room, outdoor setting, office, or limousine). The rules of the game include a time limit to smoke two drags before passing it on to the next caricature, whereupon a player can win points or is reprimanded. When the game debuted in the Apple Store in 2010, its promotional blurb promised: “Addictive game play, almost as addictive as smoking for real”.

A threat, or simply hot air?

This emerging phenomenon of using apps to glorify smoking poses challenges in the field of tobacco control for public health experts and officials.

In a March paper titled “Tobacco control is losing ground in the Web 2.0 era”, published in Tobacco Control, Kurt Ribisl, a public health expert at the University of North Carolina, said: “Pro-tobacco content normalises tobacco use, encourages initiation and thwarts cessation attempts.”

Experts have suggested that the new apps could be in contravention of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which was passed in 2003. In his paper, Ribisl noted that the framework notes that social networking sites “should have an obligation to remove or disable access to tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship once they have been made aware of the content”.

Ribisl also pointed out that the anonymity of the Internet made it difficult to regulate. “A major challenge to the enforcement of tobacco advertising bans is the inability to distinguish pro-tobacco content authored by tobacco companies or their affiliates from content authored by citizens.”

But while the trend has alarmed health professionals, some tech writers insist it’s little more than hot air.

British journalist with online tech magazine ZDNet Charlie Osborne was quick to rebut the study as “utter tosh” in an irony-laced article that began with, “'Apps make smoking sexy' -- we always look for the next thing to blame, don't we?”

Among other points, Osborne observed that the apps mostly contained either cigarette brands, information on where to buy cigarettes, or images of tobacco. “Nothing we don't see in our daily lives, hear about or even witness, then.”

Besides, she added, 107 apps in a market of 1.3 million hardly amounts to a high percentage.

Bypassing advertising regulations

The University of Sydney study received global coverage, coming at a time when many governments are looking at ways to tighten tobacco advertising laws, and the gap between pro-tobacco forces and those opposed to the habit is growing larger.

In August, Australia passed a landmark law whereby all cigarettes must be sold in uniform drab, khaki packaging with graphic health warnings. The law comes into effect on December 1.

In France however, where 30% of the population admitted to smoking on a daily basis in a 2010 study, Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac effectively ruled out plain packaging in an industry speech on Thursday.

France already has strict advertising restrictions in place, and is incrementally increasing the price of cigarettes, with a 40 centime rise on October 1 to be followed by another on January 1, 2013.

Director of the National Committee Against Smoking (CNCT) Emmanuelle Beguinot, observed that so long as French smokers start young (90% start as adolescents), cigarette companies will look to new technology to circumvent stricter government regulations.

Yet there is also a flip side to the story. Apps have also been developed to help people quit their nicotine addiction, such as 'Kick The Habit', which suggests distractions and punishments for cigarette smokers wanting to quit.

Of these apps Charlie Osborne is far less dismissive. “People looking to quit are looking for a support network; they have proactively gone out to find that resource. It’s the other side of the coin to advertising companies reaching out to the consumer.”

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