"Addictive" Smoking Apps Target Kids

By Chrisanne Grise 10/23/12

Experts say that interactive smoking simulators on phones may be more harmful than advertising.

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Kids can now light up more easily than ever, thanks to smoking simulator apps available on Android and iPhone. These simulators let users “smoke” virtually, by blowing into the microphone or on the screen, causing the glowing red image of the cigarette to “burn.” Some include a virtual ashtray that sends messages, like “Would be even better with a beer in your hand!” Another iPhone app—claiming to be “almost as addictive as smoking for real”—lets you pass cigars or cigarettes among friends in virtual smoking sessions. At least 6 million users had downloaded the Android simulators by last February. And there are now 107 pro-smoking apps available, according to a recent study from the University of Sydney, many of which target kids or teens with cartoons, games and celebrity logos. The apps also include cigarette images for phone wallpaper, rolling instructions and tobacco "shops," where users can build their own cigs. "They normalize smoking," says Barbara Loken, a consumer psychologist at the University of Minnesota. "Kids are at a stage where they’re forming their identity. The apps can provide...a way of making smoking normal among peer groups." By enhancing the appeal of cigarettes to young people, these apps provide a loophole for tobacco companies, which have long been banned from advertising in the US. Loken says games may be worse for children than billboards or magazine ads: "They increase the involvement or engagement of the participant, even more than advertisements. This may make the participant even more likely to take up smoking." The researchers are calling for more regulation. 

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Chrisanne Grise is a multimedia journalist specializing in health/fitness, lifestyle, travel, bridal, and music. Her work has appeared in print and online for publications such as Martha Stewart Weddings, Parents, FitnessMagazine, Fisher Price, Bridal Guide, Scholastic's Choices, AbsolutePunk.net, Chorus.fm, and more. She is the Senior Editor at The New York Times Upfront. Follow her on Linkedin and Twitter.