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October 25, 2012

Smartphone Apps Encouraging Young People to Smoke

by Jessica Berman

Public health officials say tobacco companies are circumventing a worldwide ban on youth-targeted advertising by marketing smartphone applications, or "apps," designed to entice young people to smoke.  

Armando Peruga is program manager for the World Health Organization’s Tobacco-Free Initiative.  He says there is a popular new type of software that's proliferating in Internet app stores and being downloaded to young peoples' mobile devices and smartphones.  These mobile apps glorify smoking and encourage children to use tobacco products.  Peruga describes one such app he recently discovered online.

“I was taken aback by a game that’s called “Puff, Puff, Pass,” which is an application that’s a cartoon came where the user must click on game characters to order them to smoke and pass the cigarette to the other characters. And the user collects points if he or she continues passing cigarettes in the same sequence at a fast pace.  Obviously, that can only be directed at younger kids," said Peruga.

Billions of people now have smartphones, and a large percentage of them are children.  In a study conducted by Australian researchers, who searched application stores using key words such as “smoke,” “cigarette,” and “cigar,” investigators found more than 100 related applications.  

The apps included not just games and social utilities, but more direct pitches promoting specific brands of tobacco products and providing information about where those products could be purchased.  

Peruga notes that often, the names of the apps are misleading.

“These apps, the study identified about 107, of these pro-smoking apps are classified under names such as health and fitness and just games which can be very misleading, and anyone can access [them] - especially young kids," he said.

The authors believe the distribution of pro-smoking smartphone applications violates the World Health Organization Convention on Tobacco Control, which bans all advertising and promotion of tobacco products in the media in countries that are signatories to the treaty.

An article on the proliferation of pro-tobacco smartphone apps is published in the journal Tobacco Control.