Global tobacco corporations are running immense marketing campaigns to grow their shares of New Zealand’s market for cigarette alternatives. To do so, they’re exploiting a regulatory grey zone to advertise to young Kiwis – including through previously unreported advertising on Tinder, the youth-focused dating app.

Local subsidiaries of the world’s largest tobacco corporations, Philip Morris International (PMI) and British American Tobacco (BAT), are peddling new products which they say are less harmful than cigarettes. PMI is pushing IQOS, which heats tobacco sticks to release flavour and nicotine but not smoke. BAT is pushing its range of Vype e-cigarettes, which allow consumers to inhale nicotine and flavour through water vapour. Both companies assert that these are harm-reduction products, and that they are only marketing to current smokers or vapers.

But their marketing strategy tells a different story.

The IQOS device’s sleek curves and buffed metallic surface more closely resemble an iPhone or novel fashion accessory than the cigarette which it allegedly replaces. PMI’s marketing leans into that impression. A set of advertisements placed on Tinder, regularly appearing to the dating site’s disproportionately young users, laud the device as, “A perfect match for 7.3 million users and counting”. The warning that “This product is not risk-free and is addictive” only comes at the bottom, in almost imperceptible grey font.

At first glance, this type of advertising would appear to be in breach of the Smoke-free Environments Act 1990, which bans the publication of any “tobacco product advertisement”. But according to Brendon Baker, senior advisor for tobacco control at the Ministry of Health, “On the one hand, you have what they call ‘heat sticks’, which are tobacco products. They’re little tobacco sticks which go in the IQOS device and are heated. Then you have the actual IQOS device, which is a heating system. And if you look at their advertising, they never have the actual tobacco products in the advertisements. It’s only the IQOS device, which isn’t a tobacco product per se.”

If that legal distinction seems artificially fine, that’s because it is. According to Baker, on a practical level, “One could argue that the IQOS device can only be used for tobacco products, therefore it’s basically a proxy for a tobacco product. There’s no use for it other than for tobacco products, therefore it’s advertising a tobacco product.”

Nevertheless, it’s a legal distinction which big tobacco is taking advantage of. RNZ has extensively reported on PMI’s targeting of Māori communities, but less attention has been paid to big tobacco’s focus on winning over young Kiwis who may not be current smokers. PMI’s use of Tinder in New Zealand comes on the heels of its global social media marketing campaign earlier this year to market IQOS. That campaign was cancelled after Reuters revealed PMI was contracting with Instagram influencers as young as 21 – wildly popular among younger people – which breached PMI’s own advertising guidelines.

… it is hard to see it as anything other than an attempt to recruit a new generation of people addicted to nicotine.

PMI did not respond to a request for comment, but a spokesperson interviewed on TVNZ1’s Q+A expressed shock at reports that high schoolers were using e-cigarettes at record numbers. “I mean, again, we don’t promote to youth. We don’t want youth to come anywhere near these products. We don’t want non-smokers to come anywhere near these products. It is not for them. It is for people who just can’t give up cigarettes.”

That is directly contradicted by Richard Edwards, co-director of the ASPIRE 2025 Research Group on tobacco control at Otago University. According to Edwards, “tobacco marketing does impact on kids and adolescents (e.g they smoke the most advertised brands) and that the advertising subtly or not subtly (think Joe Camel) reaches kids. I suspect the same will be true of [PMI’s] IQOS advertising. The sleek design and chic IQOS stores certainly make it an alluring product.”

PMI is not the only company taking advantage of the currently unregulated advertising environment for cigarette alternatives. In order to develop long-term customers for its Vype e-cigarettes, British American Tobacco (BAT) has been singularly focused on young consumers.

Vype sponsored the Christmas parties of two media organisations prominent among young Kiwis – Vice NZ and Remix. Vype’s sponsorship was acknowledged extensively on the promotional material for both events. High-profile young musicians and designers who attended, including Marc Moore, Annabel Liddell and Blink Boys, posted apparently sponsored images of Vype products to their Instagram pages afterwards, reaching thousands of young Kiwis. In 2018 Vype also sponsored a lounge at Rythm & Alps, a popular music festival. A branded photo frame they provided there was used by countless festival-goers, organically expanding Vype’s marketing reach.

When contacted, BAT refused to comment specifically and merely insisted: “Our communications about Vype are aimed at existing adult smokers and vapers and designed to give them awareness of, and information about, these products.”

That assertion isn’t credible, according to Janet Hoek, New Zealand’s leading expert on tobacco advertising and the other co-director of ASPIRE 2025. Hoek says PMI and BAT’s marketing “targets young people and it is hard to see it as anything other than an attempt to recruit a new generation of people addicted to nicotine. Tobacco companies need new nicotine users to survive, so focusing on ‘helping’ older addicted smokers to quit will eventually see their market disappear.”

Hoek is equally dismissive of PMI and BAT’s protestations they are advocating e-cigarette use as a harm-reduction strategy for current smokers. “I think the commercial activity undertaken by the large tobacco companies to support their new … products is designed entirely to further their profits and returns to shareholders – that’s what their primary responsibility is. To me, trying to disguise that responsibility as a public health initiative is as fallacious as their arguments that filters, and ‘light’ and ‘mild’ cigarettes were safer options for smokers. Tobacco companies have a history of sustained deceit and I have not seen any reason to believe they have changed their ways.”  

Edwards, the ASPIRE 2025 co-director, explained that the results for young Kiwis could be dire, particularly with IQOS. At best: “The tobacco industry recruits a new cohort of addicted young people, creating an ongoing market and income stream for Philip Morris. The long-term health effects of IQOS and other heat-not-burn products are completely unknown, but given the emission profile, I expect it to be intermediate between smoked tobacco products (high risk) and vaping products (much lower risk). So adverse health impacts will follow. Some users addicted to nicotine through IQOS may later relapse to smoking … If conversion to smoking is substantial, this will perpetuate smoking in the population, and cause a great deal more avoidable illness and death due to IQOS use.”

According to Baker, the senior advisor at the Ministry of Health, the Government is aware of that risk and is taking steps to reform the law in order to prevent big tobacco corporations from continuing their youth-centric marketing strategy. “We’ve got this grey area now … I think these companies are making hay while the sun shines, because they will be aware of Cabinet’s decision in late 2018 that all advertising, promotion and sponsorship will be prohibited [following law reform.”

The timing of that law reform process is still uncertain, and it may take until well into 2020 before an amendment to the Smoke-free Environments Act is passed to prohibit PMI and BAT’s behaviour. And while these tobacco companies are “making hay”, according to a current BAT contractor who was granted anonymity in order to speak frankly: “We might be giving a whole generation of kids cancer. We just don’t know.”

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