Tobacco industry ‘aggressively’ targeting youth with ‘manipulative’ tactics: WHO

23 May 2024

By Saba Aziz, Global News

The global tobacco industry is using “manipulative” tactics to “aggressively” target and hook youth on smoking across the globe, warns the World Health Organization, which is calling for a ban on the sale of tobacco and nicotine-related products to minors.

Globally, an estimated 37 million children aged 13 to 15 years use tobacco, the WHO said in a report released Thursday, which laid out how the tobacco and nicotine industry lures young people, who become addicted for life.

The report, which was released ahead of World No Tobacco Day on May 31, also showed that children are using e-cigarettes at rates higher than adults in many countries.

This is a “disturbing trend,” Ruediger Krech, the WHO’s director of health promotion, said at a news conference Thursday.

“Every year, millions of young people fall victim to the tobacco industry’s manipulative tactics,” he said, adding that most lifetime users of tobacco or nicotine start before the age of 21.

“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.”

Jorge Alday, director of STOP at Vital Strategies, a global tobacco industry watchdog, said the younger someone gets hooked to tobacco and nicotine, the more profitable that is for the sector.

“From the perspective of a tobacco company, a young, addicted customer means a lifetime of profit,” he told reporters.

“The governments around the world have a lot more to do to protect the next generation.”

How are youth being hooked on tobacco?

Among the range of tactics being used to attract young people to tobacco use are child-friendly flavours, colourful packaging featuring cartoon characters and e-cigarettes designed to resemble toys, the WHO reported.

“Many products have sleek and colourful designs which appeal to children and adolescents, and while these products are aggressively marketed to young people, the industry continues to claim that these products are intended for adults,” Krech said.

He added that there are currently more than 16,000 flavours of e-cigarettes, and the majority are “very appealing” to children.

The flood of thousands of such fruity and candy flavours also makes it challenging for national regulatory authorities to regulate them, Krech said.

In addition, the tobacco industry markets and sells these products near schools and sponsors youth-oriented events, the WHO said.

Given Kapolyo, a youth advocate from Zambia, said the industry also continues to team up with influencers and celebrities to “manipulate young people into thinking abusing tobacco is cool.”

“They are really going out of their way just to ensure that young people are hooked as early as they can,” she said during the WHO news conference Thursday.

The global health agency called on countries to implement and enforce comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, as well as address digital and cross-border marketing and the depiction of tobacco in entertainment media.

“We demand governments to raise prices and taxes on tobacco, nicotine and related products to make them less affordable,” Krech said.

“We would like to see that governments ban sales of these products to minors and enforce such bans, and take proactive measures to protect health policy from vested interests of the tobacco industry.”

What is Canada doing to cut tobacco, vape use?

Overall, tobacco use is on the decline in Canada and globally.

A WHO report published in January showed that an estimated 1.25 billion people aged 15 and older — or one in five people on the planet — used tobacco in 2022. This was down from 1.36 billion people, or one in three, in 2000.

In Canada, roughly 11.4 per cent of people aged 15 years and older, or 3.7 million, used tobacco in 2022.

That was down from 2010, when 18.8 per cent of that age group used tobacco. The global health agency predicted Canada will cut its tobacco use by 44 per cent next year compared with that year.

Last year, Canada became the first country in the world to require warning labels on individual cigarettes.

Health Canada has set a target of bringing tobacco use in the country to under five per cent by 2035.

On Thursday, the WHO reiterated its call to ban all flavours of e-cigarettes.

In Canada, several provinces have taken steps to curb youth vaping.

As of November 2023, there were six provinces and territories that ban or are set to ban most flavours of vape products: Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Quebec.

Most e-cigarettes and vaping products contain nicotine, which is a stimulant drug found in tobacco.

Health Canada has cautioned that vaping nicotine can “lead to physical dependence and addiction” and expose people to chemicals “that can be harmful to your health.”

The agency advises that young people and those who don’t use tobacco products not vape.

Meanwhile, the introduction of nicotine pouches to the Canadian market has also raised concerns among health experts and the federal government.

Canada’s Health Minister Mark Holland said in March that he was “seeking authority” to restrict such products “so they are solely for the purposes of cessation.”

That same day, Health Canada said in a public advisory that nicotine pouches should only be used as a method to quit smoking and not recreationally.

— with files from Global News’ Katie Dangerfield