Tobacco and nicotine industry ‘hooking the next generation,’ WHO report says

23 May 2024

By Thomson Reuters, CBC News

‘Same nicotine with a different packaging,’ WHO head says

Tobacco companies still actively target young people via social media, sports and music festivals and new, flavoured products, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday, accusing companies of trying to hook a new generation on nicotine.

Amid ever-stricter regulation targeting cigarettes, big tobacco companies and new entrants have begun offering smoking alternatives such as vapes, which they say are aimed at adult smokers.

But the WHO said these products’ are often marketed to youth, their design and variety of fruity flavours appeals to children, and that young people are more likely to use the products than adults around the world.
 
“History is repeating itself, but in a different form. The same nicotine with a different packaging,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general.
 
The industry says it is working to reduce the harm from smoking, but Tedros rejected this claim.

“It’s dishonest to talk about harm reduction when they are marketing to children,” he said.
 
WHO Director of Health Promotion Ruediger Krech added: “The use of child-friendly flavours like cotton candy and bubblegum, combined with sleek and colourful designs that resemble toys, is a blatant attempt to addict young people to these harmful products.”

The products have expanded from cigarettes, cigarillos and shisha to newer products like e-cigarettes, heated tobacco products and nicotine pouches.
 
The WHO’s increasingly tough stance on newer nicotine products comes after a sharp rise in youth vaping across several countries, which it says is in part driven by the dizzying array of fruity and sweet flavours on offer.

Canadian scientist calls for flavour restrictions

Robert Schwartz, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, said e-cigarettes are addictive with harms such as respiratory symptoms including wheezing and coughing.

Schwartz’s surveys suggest a high proportion of young people in Canada say they’ve been exposed to industry marketing of e-cigarettes. 

Kids, parents and educators need to know about the harms.

“How is it that despite the fact that we have age restrictions on the sale of these products to young people that they still are so widespread?” Schwartz asked of governments.

Federal Health Minister Mark Holland has said in June he aims to:

  • Restrict flavours like winterberry splash from nicotine pouches and vaping.
  • Approve all marketing before it is deployed to avoid the lifestyle advertising promoting nicotine pouches.
  • Work with provinces and territories to move nicotine pouches behind the pharmacist’s counter

Big tobacco companies and a host of new entrants making vapes or other smoking alternatives say flavours are an important tool in encouraging adult smokers to switch to an alternative product.

Eric Gagnon, vice-president of corporate and regulatory affairs at Imperial Tobacco Canada, said the company “has publicly and strongly stated multiple times that minors should not have access to any tobacco or nicotine products and that we support measures that prevent underage access.”

The WHO said other tactics used by the industry that target children include sponsorship of music and sports festivals, the use of social media and product placement in TV shows and games.

All of these offer a platform to promote their brands to younger audiences and in countries where traditional advertising is restricted, the WHO said, adding in-person events also provide an opportunity for companies to hand out free samples.