Shukria Ismail

The tobacco industry, infamous for its persistent and devious tactics, continues to fuel a global health crisis with 1.3 billion users worldwide. Alarmingly, tobacco claims a life every four seconds, with half of its users falling victim to its lethal consequences.

For decades, the industry has deployed cunning strategies to hook generations on nicotine, driving a relentless pursuit of profit. This multi-billion-dollar sector not only seeks to sustain its market but aggressively expands it, often targeting vulnerable demographics like children and adolescents with new and alluring products.

As global awareness and control measures against tobacco use have intensified, leading to a decline in its social acceptability, the industry has been quick to adapt. It revisits old tactics and innovates new ones to salvage its tarnished reputation and entice a new generation of users.

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One such strategy is the misleading marketing of products like cigarette filters and “light” or “mild” tobacco variants. These products are falsely portrayed as less harmful alternatives to quitting, effectively skewing public perception of their risks and undermining tobacco control policies. The industry’s latest gambit involves promoting electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) and electronic non-nicotine delivery systems (ENNDS), commonly known as e-cigarettes, and heated tobacco products (HTPs) as part of a harm reduction narrative.

The tobacco industry’s insidious reach extends to social media, where it leverages influencers to subtly endorse its products. These influencers, often followed by a young audience, offer a veneer of authenticity to the promotion, particularly when sponsorship details are undisclosed.

Further exploiting its influence, the industry offers scholarships to students, requiring them to write essays on the purported benefits of ENDS, thereby subtly embedding its agenda in academic discourse. It also infiltrates educational settings, paying for the privilege to speak in classrooms and sponsoring youth camps under the guise of promoting “safer” alternatives.

The ubiquity of digital and social media advertising has allowed tobacco companies to infiltrate the daily digital interactions of younger generations. They strategically place advertisements on popular apps and video games, leveraging user data to target potential young customers effectively.

The industry’s tactics extend to retail environments, with eye-catching displays strategically placed near schools and at children’s eye level. These displays often feature bright, attractive marketing materials to draw the attention of young customers.

In entertainment media, such as television and cinema, product placement further normalizes tobacco use among young viewers, significantly increasing the likelihood of them initiating smoking. Moreover, the distribution of free product samples in youth-centric locations like shopping malls and festivals, along with merchandise adorned with company logos, are other strategies to entice a younger demographic.

These relentless and multifaceted tactics of the tobacco industry illustrate its dedication to maintaining and expanding its market, often at the expense of public health and particularly targeting the young and impressionable. This underscores the critical need for stringent regulatory measures and heightened public awareness to combat this ongoing epidemic.