How Tobacco Companies Target Children While Promoting Cigarettes in Middle‑Low Income Countries
The World Health Organization recently made a sobering statement about how tobacco companies seek out new customers: “Increasingly, it is targeting young people with nicotine and tobacco products in a bid to replace the 8 million people that its products kill every year.” In other words, children form a lucrative customer demographic to compensate for all the adults dying from smoking-related diseases each year. In India, an estimated eight million people die of this — creating a huge vacuum in consumers that, ostensibly, children can fill.
A study, published in BMJ shows exactly this: Big Tobacco companies use deliberate strategies to target children while selling their products. The key link is at the point of sale (POS), given how advertising in most other forms is banned in most countries. Further, while much research has focused on high-income countries, the current study focused on middle to low–income countries — including India — and found that the scale of targeting was much larger than it seemed.
In particular, companies rely on four strategies: displaying products near sugary drinks and snacks, advertising at the eye level of children, promoting flavored cigarettes, and selling single sticks of cigarettes.
There’s something particularly pernicious about this, indicating “prevalent marketing efforts that target some of the world’s most disadvantaged populations,” as the study notes. It is particularly concerning that the strategies prevail, given that the scientific consensus is clear on how such advertising strategies do, in fact, promote early smoking among youth.
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So far, India’s anti-smoking regulations haven’t been very effective — and children are particularly vulnerable to picking up the habit. In 2017, the Indian government drafted a proposal to address exactly this. It suggested tobacco sellers register themselves as such with the local authorities and, moreover, not sell sweets, candy, or other products that would attract non-smokers to the store. Two years later, a study by the Consumer Voice and Voluntary Health Association of India found that the biggest tobacco companies systematically target children as young as eight.
Besides, there remain many other entry points other than those points of sale. Previous research has also shown that depictions of smoking in Bollywood have increased teen interest in smoking; celebrities also use regulatory loopholes to endorse tobacco products. Amid all this, the present study also noted the use of delivery apps that advertise and sell tobacco; the age restriction feature on these apps is much easier to bypass, making access easier. “This method of advertising and sales is concerning as it can be easily accessed by children and youth, who are often tech–savvy and highly proficient in using mobile apps,” the authors note.
“…in the absence of strong restrictions and enforcement, the tobacco industry is employing similar marketing strategies all around the world with what we believe is the specific intention to attract and addict children and youth,” the authors note in a commentary about their research.