Marketing cigarettes ain’t what it used to be. Gone are the days of Joe Camel billboards and T-shirts or caps branded with cigarette makers’ logos. But Big Tobacco hasn’t given up on getting its message out.
A 1999 settlement banned tobacco companies from advertising outdoors or at stadiums but there’s another grey zone where the definition of an ad remains fuzzy — smartphone apps. According to the latest research from Australia, apps are loosely regulated, sold worldwide, and increasingly popular—all appealing features for cigarette makers. They’re even open to kids.
In their report, published in the journal Tobacco Control, researchers at the University of Sydney searched the Apple and Android app stores with keywords like “smoke,” “cigarette,” and “tobacco,” to see how many promotional apps they could find. They tallied up anything that looked to be pro-smoking — apps showing branded images or info about where to buy tobacco products — even if the product claimed to be an aid for quitting. The final count? More than 100 different mobile-phone applications that appear to promote smoking.
(MORE: And the World’s Top Smokers Are…)
It’s doubtful all the promos come straight from tobacco companies. The researchers, however, believe that some may. Speaking to Bloomberg earlier this week, author Nasser BinDhim said he finds it “suspicious” that smoking apps are typically released by developers who work under nicknames rather than business names, unlike in other industries. TIME selected five of the most creative pro-smoking apps described in the study, so you can judge for yourself:
Most apps identified by the Sydney researchers were tools to simulate or mimic the act of smoking. In this one, users click on the screen to drop ash into the virtual ashtray.
Although the app’s download page claims it can be used to help to quit smoking, BinDhim and colleagues felt the messages that users receive when they drop ash into the ashtray might actually encourage smoking behavior. One such message: “Would be even better with a beer in your hand!” The scientists also say there is no evidence that simulated smoking can prevent cigarette cravings.
This app for Android gives tar and nicotine specs, photos of packaging, and a list of global availability for major cigarette brands from all over the world. Helpful, perhaps, if you’re visiting Estonia and trying to figure out which smokes to buy.
Don’t underestimate how global the market for smartphone apps has become. Today there are more than 6 billion mobile phones worldwide and while most of those are not smartphones, the number of smartphone users continues to rise. In rich countries, like the U.S., the U.K, and Australia, more than one third of mobile phones are already app-ready, according to the new study.
3) Puff Puff Pass
In this cartoon game, players click on a character to make the virtual person smoke. You win points for passing the cigarette (or the pipe, or the cigar — you choose) quickly between characters in a designated order.
There’s strong evidence that smoking in movies can encourage kids to smoke more. A cartoon game with lots of smoking may have the same effect.
4) Cigarette Battery Widget
This app uses a cigarette icon to show you how much battery power remains on your smartphone. It’s simple and requires very little engagement from users. But it can still be a constant reminder of cigarettes, and smoking. So far, this app has been downloaded more than 50,000 times.
5) CRA — Cigar Rights of America
Cigar Rights of America is an advocacy group that will petition various local, state, and federal governments to “protect the freedoms of cigar enthusiasts,” according to the group’s website. This app lets users stream audio and video related to cigar regulation, and gives updates on news, events, and ways to get involved with the group.
Given this latest research on the number of smoking promotions now available in app stores, it may not be long before CRA finds itself with a new legal battle to address: the rights of the virtual cigar smoker.