iSmoke. Magic Smoke. Puff Puff Pass. iRoll Up. Smartphone smoking-simulation apps like these exist by the dozens in the iTunes Store and Android Market. Researchers at the University of Sydney have cataloged at least 107 apps that they say contain a pro-smoking message and can entice kids into thinking that smoking is cool. The researchers, whose work was published Oct. 22 in the journal Tobacco Control, say the apps — which have been downloaded millions of times — are a violation of the World Health Organization's ban on outdoor smoking advertisements.
In addition to apps that allow users to simulate smoking or to blow smoke rings, there are also apps that teach how to roll cigarettes or that act as games where a cigar or cigarette is passed around from friend to friend. One game, Puff Puff Pass, bills itself as "addictive gameplay, almost as addictive as smoking for real."
As the researchers write in their paper, "Smartphones are ideal marketing targets as consumers can be reached anytime, anywhere." The authors found that the smartphone app market lacks consistent regulation regarding what content can be sold to what age groups.
Some of the smoking apps in the iTunes store are restricted for sale to people 17 years or older. At least one app, iSmoke with puff rings, is labeled for users over the age of 12 but does not appear to have any actual age-related downloading restrictions. The authors say these age restrictions are not present in the Android Market.
Lead author Nasser F. Bin Dihm told AAP News, which is published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, that at least three of the apps carried ads for cigarettes sold by Philip Morris. He said that most of the apps are published anonymously or under nicknames, so the companies behind them can't be easily traced. He called this "suspicious."
Barbara Loken, a consumer psychologist at the University of Minnesota who was not involved with the study, told NPR that the apps "increase the involvement or engagement of the participant, even more than advertisements" and they can "normalize smoking" at a point when kids are determining their identities.
At least one critic said the apps aren't the problem. "If someone is enough of an idiot to download an app called 'Puff Puff Pass,' where the only point of the game is to smoke and pass along a cigarette, they are probably going to smoke either way — or already do," Charlie Osborne wrote for ZDNet's iGeneration blog.
The authors of the new paper look at some country-specific laws and regulations that could be used to control what they call "harmful content" in other countries and suggest that app stores have a "legal responsibility" to make sure that they are complying with the World Health Organization's rules regarding tobacco advertising.
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