Indian sand artist Sudarshan Patnaik with an artwork on the eve of World No Tobacco Day 2020. (AFP or licensors)

By Robin Gomes

May 30 2020

31 May marks World No Tobacco Day. Tobacco products continue to kill 8 million people a year who get hooked via a $9 billion annual marketing strategy. Teenagers are being increasingly targeted by the tobacco industry.

That’s the warning that the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) sent out on Friday, ahead of World No Tobacco Day on Sunday.

It said that even during the current global pandemic, the tobacco and nicotine industry is continuing to promote products that limit people’s ability to fight the Covid-19 virus and recover from the disease.

40 million youth hooked on tobacco

For this year’s World No Tobacco Day, May 31, the UN’s health agency is focusing on protecting teenagers, who are a key target of the tobacco industry.

More than 40 million young people today aged 13-15, have already started to use tobacco, it estimates. 

Smoking suffocates the lungs and other organs, starving them of the oxygen they need to develop and function properly, the WHO warned in a statement.

The tobacco industry is increasingly targeting young people with nicotine and tobacco products in a bid to replace the 8 million people that its products kill every year.

According to Ruediger Krech, WHO Director for Health Promotion, “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 action

In a bid to help prevent addiction among teenagers, the WHO Friday launched a new kit for school students aged 13-17 to alert them regarding the tactics used by the tobacco and related industry to exploit and hook them to addictive products.

It includes a set of classroom activities, an educational video, a myth-buster quiz, and homework assignments.  

The toolkit exposes tactics such as parties and concerts  hosted by the tobacco and related industries, e-cigarette flavours that attract, e-cigarette representatives presenting in schools, and product placement in popular youth streaming shows. 

Subtle marketing tactics 

WHO pointed out that smoking e-cigarettes and hookah pipes – marketed as “safer” alternatives to conventional cigarettes – is harmful, addictive, and increases the risk of developing heart and lung disease.

The WHO also noted that most of the 15,000 flavours on offer – such as bubble-gum and candy – are to attract youngsters who at least double their chance of smoking cigarettes later in life.

Other marketing strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic have included the offer of free branded masks and a home delivery service during the current quarantine.

The tobacco industry has also lobbied for its products to be listed as “essential”, the health agency noted.

To reach Generation Z (4-24 years of age), WHO launched a TikTok challenge #TobaccoExposed and welcomed social media partners like Pinterest, Tinder, YouTube and TikTok to amplify messaging.

The WHO is calling on all sectors, such as schools, celebrities and influencers, television and streaming services, social media platforms, governments and financial sectors, to help stop marketing tactics of tobacco and related industries that prey on children and young people. 

No cigarettes sold in the Vatican

Pope Francis ordered the end of cigarette sales in the Vatican from the beginning of 2018, stating that the Holy See would not  contribute to an activity that clearly damages the health of people.  (Source: UN news/WHO)