WHO: How tobacco industry 'manipulates' youth and what can we do
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WHO: How tobacco industry 'manipulates' youth and what can we do

Ratziel San Juan (Philstar.com) - May 29, 2020 - 5:03pm

MANILA, Philippines — Ahead of World No Tobacco Day 2020 on Sunday, the World Health Organization is spotlighting how teenagers are falling prey to aggressive marketing by the multi-billion dollar tobacco industry to enter a life of smoking at a young age.

“Educating youth is vital because nearly nine out of 10 smokers start before age 18. We want to provide young people with the knowledge to speak out against tobacco industry manipulation,” WHO Director for Health Promotion Ruediger Krech said in a statement.

More than 40 million youth between the ages of 13 and 15 have been exposed to tobacco products, which snuff out up to half of all users and kill over eight million people yearly, according to WHO data.

Of which, direct tobacco use accounts for the majority of mortalities at more than seven million, while second-hand smoke leads to the deaths of around 1.2 million other non-smokers.

Here’s everything parents and concerned stakeholders need to know.

How does tobacco reach the younger demographic?

Cigarette and smokeless tobacco companies invest billions of dollars annually to promote their products, with over $9 billion spent on advertising and marketing expenses spent in the United States alone back in 2018, based on Federal Trade Commission reports.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that adolescents exposed to cigarette advertisements usually find these appealing and are influenced to start using tobacco.

They cited a 2018 study that mentioned that the tobacco products most-preferred by students are the same three most heavily-advertised brands that each featured a "favorite cigarette ad."

A 2016 WHO bulletin, citing global research and case studies, similarly said that evidence points to on-screen smoking in film as a significant influence for the youth.

What industry tactics should we be wary of?

Tobacco and related industries usually employ the following methods to attract and manipulate the young market, while understating the health risks posed by their products.

  • Appealing flavors, e.g. bubble gum, cherry, cotton candy and gummy bear
  • Whimsical yet deceptive product designs, e.g. shaped like candy or a flash drive, display of cartoon characters and child-friendly imagery
  • Misleading, unscientific marketing of “reduced harm” or “cleaner” alternatives to conventional cigarettes
  • Celebrity and influencer sponsorships and brand-sponsored contests
  • Strategic product placement in vendor outlets, i.e. positioned near products popular among the youth
  • Proximity to schools
  • Indirect marketing of tobacco products in entertainment media
  • Tobacco vending machines
  • Free product samples
  • Weakening of tobacco regulations

“Tobacco products, such as smokeless and water pipe tobacco, are sold in sweet and fruity flavors, which may increase appeal to non-smokers and mask the harsh tobacco taste. To date, researchers have identified over 15,000 e-cigarette flavors available... The flavors may lower perception of the harmfulness and addictiveness of nicotine products.”

What can be done to protect the youth?

WHO issued a public call to prevent the marketing of tobacco and similar industries at every level, advising different sectors closest to the youth to take the following necessary actions on their end:

  • Schools must refuse any form of tobacco sponsorship and prohibit representatives of nicotine and tobacco companies from speaking to their students
  • Celebrities and influencers must reject all offers of tobacco sponsorship 
  • Television and streaming services must stop showing tobacco or e-cigarette use on screen 
  • Social media must ban the marketing of tobacco and related products, including influencer marketing
  • Government and financial sector must divest from tobacco and related industries 
  • Governments must ban all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship 

“Countries can protect children from industry exploitation by putting in place strict tobacco control laws, including regulating products like e-cigarettes that have already begun to hook a new generation of young people.”

Related: How LGUs, city leaders can reduce ‘invisible epidemic’ responsible for most deaths globally

WHO also developed a workshop toolkit to help parents, teachers and other supervisors approach and arm young teenagers against tobacco marketing.

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