By Isabella Njeri

It is time to prioritize protecting lives over the profit motives of the tobacco industry by implementing stronger regulations and higher prices on tobacco and nicotine products.

Public health leaders and youth activists told governments during a virtual press conference ahead of World No Tobacco Day on May 31st.

According to a report titled “Hooking the Next Generation”, an estimated 37 million children aged 13-15 years worldwide are already using tobacco products. Worse still, disturbing trends like e-cigarette use among young people surpass adult use in many countries.

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a new report exposing how the tobacco industry targets youth with addictive flavored products, social media influencers, and deceptive marketing tactics.

Dr. Ruediger Krech, WHO’s Director for Health Promotion, led the virtual press conference, emphasizing the urgent need for global action. “The industry’s goal is clear – replace tobacco users lost to death and disease with a fresh wave of users trapped in addiction,” stated Dr. Krech.

The report underscores how the tobacco industry exploits digital and social media platforms, delivery apps, and innovative marketing strategies to reach young audiences. Additionally, traditional methods like distributing free samples and promoting child-friendly flavors such as bubble gum and cotton candy remain widespread, with over 16,000 e-cigarette flavors available on some markets. These products are often designed with colorful packaging that appeals directly to children and adolescents.

Jorge Alday, Director, Vital Strategies, emphasized the lethal nature of tobacco products and the industry’s relentless pursuit of profit at the expense of public health.

“The terrible truth is that 8 million people every year die from tobacco use. The industry’s products kill at least half of the people who use them,” Alday stated. “They aggressively market these products with cartoon characters and through social media influencers, making it easier for young people to get hooked.”

He also called to attention the industry’s deceptive practices, such as presenting themselves as environmentally conscious by promoting cigarette filters as sustainable, while simultaneously marketing products that are among the most littered single-use plastics on earth.

He criticized their efforts to oppose public health policies that would reduce youth addiction and their tactics to intimidate governments through lawsuits and aggressive lobbying.

“The industry continues to hook young people, especially here in Africa where access to information is limited, they come with myths and misconceptions telling young people how vaping is not as deadly as traditional tobacco-their only interest is profits,” noted Given Kapolio, Zambia’s Global Youth Ambassador of the Year.

Kapolio recounted inspiring youth-led protests, advocacy campaigns and efforts to “speak truth to power” by pressuring leaders like Zambia’s president to enact stronger policies protecting the next generation.

To curb this public health crisis, WHO is demanding that governments implement comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising across all platforms, including digital marketing, entertainment media and cross-border promotions.

They insist that governments should raise prices and taxes to make tobacco products less affordable, ban sales of tobacco and nicotine products to minors and enforce age restrictions, take a “whole-of-government” approach to protect public health policies from the corrupting influences of the tobacco industry.

“Our clear call to governments is to prioritize life over profits,” declared Kapolio. “We ask them to strengthen tobacco control policies and laws to protect present and future generations.”

Dr. Krech affirmed WHO’s support for the growing youth movement rejecting tobacco industry exploitation. “We invite young people to join this movement towards a world free from tobacco’s deadly grip.”

As the global death toll from tobacco use reaches eight million annually, WHO’s call to action is clear: governments worldwide must take firm measures to protect future generations from the devastating effects of tobacco use.