Purpose Two previous studies indicate that prosmoking apps might encourage smoking behaviour via smoking cues. The current paper seeks to build on these studies and provide an updated overview of the characteristics of tobacco industry-sponsored apps.
Methods In November 2017, we identified 19 unique top-selling cigarette brands, 20 smokeless tobacco brands, 30 e-cigarette brands and 43 cigar brands based on Nielsen sales from 2016 Nielsen Scantrack data and 2016 Kantar advertising data from the Kantar Media Stradegy database. We searched for these brand-sponsored apps in the Google Play and Apple iTunes US online stores.
Results We identified four cigarette and one smokeless tobacco brand-sponsored apps on the Google Play store, but none in the Apple store. The apps sponsored by Grizzly, Newport, Skoal, Camel and Winston used the last four digits of the users’ social security number to verify age. The Marlboro app offered another option in addition to providing a partial social security number—providing a valid home address. The main feature of all apps was location-based, time-sensitive coupons. Some apps had additional functions such as additional detailed product information, interactive help menus and games.
Discussion This paper provides an up-to-date description of apps that are sponsored by tobacco companies. Cessation interventions could consider reminding their target audience to delete these apps to support quit attempts.
- tobacco industry
- advertising and promotion
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Tobacco companies engage consumers with media channels including point-of-sale marketing, print media, direct mail marketing, event-based promotions and company websites.1–7 As US smartphone ownership is increasing8–11 (88% of adults now own smartphones10), companies are engaging consumers with smartphone applications or "apps". Branded apps have provided consumers with product information, motivated sales (eg, with coupons) and entertainment (eg, games).12–14 This can positively affect brand attitude and purchase intention.12In line with this trend, tobacco companies have recently started to use branded apps to engage consumers.15 16 Understanding these apps is increasingly important as more and more people become smartphone owners.8–12 Two previous studies indicate that prosmoking apps might encourage smoking behaviour via smoking cues.15 16 While these studies described a range of prosmoking apps, they did not specify whether apps were tobacco company sponsored.15 16 The current paper seeks to build on these studies and provide an updated description of the characteristics of tobacco industry-sponsored apps.
We identified 19 cigarette brands, 20 smokeless tobacco brands, 30 e-cigarette brands and 43 cigar brands using two US sources. First, we examined dollar sales from Nielsen Scantrack data for total United States’convenience stores and all outlets combined for the 52-week period ending 31 December 2016. We identified the top 20 brands: for cigarettes and smokeless tobacco separately, for all eight Nielsen’s e-cigarette categories collectively, and for each of Nielsen’s cigar categories separately (cigars, cigarillos and other cigars). Second, we identified brands spending more than $10 000 on advertising in 2016 based on the Kantar Media Stradegy database. Duplicate brands were removed, as were sub-brands and duplicating brands (eg, Marlboro 100’s). During November 2017 in the US, we searched for these apps in the Google Play store (on an Android phone) and Apple iTunes US-based store (on an iPhone). Search terms were the brand name and name of the product type (eg, ‘Camel cigarettes’). We only downloaded and reviewed apps that listed a tobacco company under ‘developer’ in the app’s store description. Our results could have been affected by each store’s restrictions on tobacco apps. Google Play bans apps that are ‘depicting or encouraging the use or sale of drugs, alcohol or tobacco by minors’.17 The Apple app store bans apps that encourage tobacco product use.18
We identified four cigarette and one smokeless tobacco brand-sponsored apps on the Google Play store, but none in the iTunes store. We identified one e-cigarette brand app, however we did not include it because the app could not be opened without first pairing it with a Bluetooth-enabled Vuse e-cigarette. We did not identify any cigar apps. We became aware of a sixth app for Skoal smokeless tobacco and included it in our results. All but one app (WMC) were from the brands that were within the top three by market share, based on 2015 and 2016 data.19 20
Google play store app description
Table 1 lists app information. No apps used the tobacco product brand’s name, instead used acronyms representing the brand (eg, GX for Grizzly). The Google Play Store rated all apps as ‘Mature: 17+’.
Entering the apps and overall appearance
To enter each app, users were required to register for an account. To do so, they had to be at least age 18 or 21 and a tobacco user (per each app’s terms and conditions). The GX, NP$, SKZ, The Oasis and WMC apps used the last four digits of the users’ social security number to verify age. The MHQ app offered another option in addition to providing a partial social security number—providing a valid home address. After logging into each app, users saw a home screen with the brand name, some with a coupon (figure 1). Every app’s menu included three items: coupons that used geolocation, a product retailer search and account access. The account access area allowed users to sign up for emails, text messages and/or push updates. In addition, the GX and NP$ apps used push updates to remind users about available coupons.
Apps displayed a link to a required warning at the top of the app (figure 1). For cigarette apps, warnings were typically linked to a box that said ‘Surgeon General’s Warning.’ Once clicked, the full warning would appear. Sometimes, the warning required scrolling down to see (eg, the GX app). Required warnings also appeared on the loading screens of MHQ, GX, SKZ and WMC apps. The MHQ app had an additional statement related to the relative safety of their cigarettes and that their cigarettes do not help smokers quit.
Location-based, time-sensitive coupons
The main feature of all apps was location-based, time-sensitive coupons (figure 2). First, users selected the store where they planned to use the coupon using a store locator (figure 3). The store locator accessed the user’s geolocation and automatically showed several stores within the user’s immediate area. Second, users viewed the coupon(s). Users of the MHQ app selected one of two coupons, typically $1 off a pack of Marlboro brand cigarettes or a larger discount on a carton. Other apps only offered one coupon. Third, users would go to the selected store and open the app to verify their geolocation. Fourth, the user clicked a button indicating they want to use the coupon. After clicking this, customers had 5 minutes to redeem the coupon. The WMC and Oasis apps did not have functioning store locators, preventing users from accessing coupons.
Some apps had additional functions. The MHQ app included a ‘help’ menu that described the coupon process to users and allowed users to send a message to the company. The SKZ app included a photo of the package of each product along with a one-sentence description of each product. Product information was organised by flavour (eg, straight, wintergreen) and by type (eg, Long Cut). These descriptions were integrated with the store locator so that one could search for a specific product (figure 4). The GX app linked to the brand website from the app. The MHQ app also included a game named ‘Eagle Eye’. Players could match an image on screen with one of three icons that represents the image within a limited time frame.
This paper provides an up-to-date description of English language apps that are sponsored by tobacco companies. BinDihm and colleagues used data collected in February 2012 and identified three apps that contained cigarette branding, at least one of which was explicitly tobacco-company sponsored.16 We found six industry-sponsored apps: five from the Google Play store and one on a tobacco company website. Four apps were for cigarette brands and two were for smokeless tobacco brands. Apps did not use tobacco brand names. All but one were from brands that were in the top three by market share. The main function of these apps was to provide consumers with location-based, time-sensitive coupons. This is a small number of apps, and tobacco companies may rely on smartphone-optimised websites instead of apps to reach consumers on smartphones, as these do not require downloading from an online store.21
Most smokers22 and members of several tobacco susceptible populations own smartphones, (eg, young adults,10 Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual individuals13) and could be exposed to tobacco apps. Agaku and Ayo-Yusuf have found that the exposure to protobacco advertising increases odds of experimenting with tobacco.23 Unique app features, such as push updates and store locators that use geolocation, could increase tobacco brand engagement and reduce barriers to buying compared with other channels of tobacco advertising. These features may remind tobacco users to keep purchasing products which can undermine quit attempts.
Cessation interventions could consider reminding their target audience to delete these apps to support quit attempts. Being aware of these apps can also inform Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulation of tobacco products. For example, FDA issued a draft guidance24 for public comment that discusses submitting copies of draft promotional materials that the applicant expects will be used in marketing the proposed Modified Risk Tobacco Products (when final, the guidance will represent FDA’s current thinking on the topic).
The current study has several limitations. It does not consider apps not in English. It is limited to leading cigarette and smokeless products. As with previous studies on tobacco-related apps,16 this study only describes a snapshot in time. Available apps may change often—for example, when updating number of app downloads before publication, we found the WMC app was no longer available. Future studies should investigate smartphone apps offered in other countries, investigate apps for other tobacco products and assess how unique app features such as push notifications and store locators could affect tobacco use behaviours.
As tobacco companies are increasing online advertising spending1 2 and most smokers and members of tobacco-susceptible subpopulations (eg, young adults) own a smartphone,10 11 it is important to understand how tobacco companies are engaging people using smartphone apps. The current study described characteristics of six smokeless tobacco and cigarette company-sponsored apps and found their main function was to provide location-based, time-sensitive coupons. Available tobacco company-sponsored apps may be rapidly changing and monitoring them will inform knowledge of how companies engage consumers and can inform cessation interventions and tobacco regulation.
Contributors MAN, EKO and LH have all contributed to the development of the study, the implementation of the study and the writing of the manuscript.
Funding Publication of this article was supported by the US Food andDrug Administration, Center for Tobacco Products. No funding was providedspecifically for conducting the analysis, drafting the manuscript, orsubmitting this paper for publication.
Disclaimer This publication represents the views of the author(s) and does not represent FDA/CTP position or policy. The conclusions drawn from the Nielsen data are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of Nielsen. Nielsen is not responsible for and had no role in and was not involved in analysing and preparing the results reported here.
Competing interests None declared.
Patient consent Not required.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
Data sharing statement The data are provided upon request from the authors of this manuscript.