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Report: Tobacco industry uses manipulative practices to hook young people on addictive products 

FILE - A woman blows smoke from an electronic cigarette in San Jose, Costa Rica, on May 14, 2024.
FILE - A woman blows smoke from an electronic cigarette in San Jose, Costa Rica, on May 14, 2024.

The World Health Organization and STOP, a global tobacco industry watchdog, warn the tobacco industry is using a variety of manipulative tactics to hook a new generation of young people into becoming users of their addictive, toxic tobacco and nicotine products for life.

“The terrible truth is that eight million people every year die from tobacco use. The single greatest cause for these deaths is a vast industry that works relentlessly to sell products that are essentially poison,” Jorge Alday, director of STOP at Vital Strategies, said at the recent launch of a new tobacco interference report, “Hooking the next generation.”

Speaking in advance of World No Tobacco Day on May 31, Alday asserted that the tobacco industry’s products kill at least half of the people who use them, therefore, he said, “It has an endless need to replace its customers.”

“From the perspective of a tobacco company, an addictive customer means a lifetime of profits. So, the younger someone gets hooked the more money they can make at the expense of that person’s health,” he said.

The report shows that globally, an estimated 37 million children ages 13 to 15 use tobacco, and in many countries, the rate of e-cigarette use among adolescents exceeds that of adults.

While significant progress has been made in reducing tobacco use, the report says the emergence of e-cigarettes and other new tobacco and nicotine products presents “a grave threat to youth and tobacco control.”

“Studies demonstrate that e-cigarette use increases conventional cigarette use, particularly among non-smoking youth, by nearly three times,” it says.

Ruediger Krech, director of health promotion at WHO, told journalists attending the global launch of the report last week that the industry is “exploiting digital and social media, delivery apps, and other innovative ways to reach our children. At the same time, they are continuing with old tricks such as giving away free samples to recruit a new generation as customers.”

He said the use of child-friendly flavored e-cigarettes combined with sleek and colorful designs that resemble toys “is a blatant attempt” by tobacco and related industries “to addict young people to these harmful products.”

“Currently, we have about 16,000 flavors that are very appealing to children and young people—fruity flavors, candy, bubble gum and vanilla ice-cream,” he said, noting that most adult tobacco users start their deadly habit when they are young.

“Most of them have started before the age of 21. Then they stay tobacco or nicotine users for the rest of their lives,” he said. “That is alarming when we are now seeing that with these novel products, so many children and young people are taking up this nicotine use.

“So, there is an urgency to act now to regulate those products, ban them if possible. But to be very, very serious about this,” he added.

One of many youth advocates around the world taking a stand against “the destructive influence and manipulative marketing practices” of the tobacco and nicotine industry is Given Kapolyo of Zambia. She is the Global Young Ambassador of the Year with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, CTFK.

“I totally agree with the sentiments shared already today that the industry continues to hook young people,” she said, speaking from the Zambian capital, Lusaka.

“It is extremely sad here in Africa because they continue to target low-income communities because they know that these young people do not have access to information on just how deadly these products are. ... They tell young people that vaping is cooler, that electronic cigarettes are cooler, and they continue to hook young people as early as 10 years and 13 years old.

“Their only interest is profits, and they want to hook young people while they are young, so they can have lifelong customers, which means more profits for them, without caring how many lives we are losing due to non-communicable diseases caused by tobacco abuse,” she said.

The World Health Organization is urging governments to protect young people from taking up tobacco, e-cigarettes and other nicotine products by banning or tightly regulating them. Its recommendations include the creation of smoke-free indoor public places, bans on flavored e-cigarettes, as well as bans on marketing, advertising, and promotions, and the enactment of higher taxes.

Authors of the reports say these measures work. They cite an example from the United States where research found that “more than 70 percent of youth e-cigarette users would quit if the products were only available in tobacco flavor.”