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- tobacco industry
- non-cigarette tobacco products
- advertising and promotion
- harm reduction
- surveillance and monitoring
Prevalence of conventional cigarette smoking continues to decline in South Korea in a context of changing social norms about tobacco use and strong tobacco control efforts by the government, civil society and scholars.1 Sales of conventional cigarettes also continue to decline compared with previous years.2 However, sales of other tobacco products, such as heated tobacco products (HTPs) or electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes), continue to increase3 (figure 1). Multinational tobacco companies have introduced novel products in Korea, including Philip Morris International’s HTP brand, IQOS, in May 20174 and JUUL in May 2019.5 British American Tobacco (BAT) introduced ‘Glo Sens’ in August 2019.6
Glo Sens – an e-cigarette hybrid
Glo Sens was launched in Korea just after its introduction in the Japanese market.5 BAT Korea claims that this product contains less toxicants than cigarettes, suggesting that it is a less harmful alternative to conventional cigarettes.7 They promote Glo Sens as a hybrid device that provides the taste of both e-cigarettes and conventional cigarette smoke.6 ‘Neo Pods’ containing flavoured liquid without nicotine are heated by a battery to create an aerosol.6 Then, the aerosol goes through ‘a tobacco leaf pod’ containing tobacco leaves before being delivered to the user6 (figure 2). The price of the Glo Sens device is 50 000 Korean won (equivalent to US$45) while a pack of Neo Pods, which consist of three tobacco leaf pods and one liquid pod, costs 4500 Korean won (equivalent to US$4.5)7 (figure 2).
Glo Sens promotion with K-pop stars appeals to teenagers
In response to stiff competition from other tobacco companies, BAT is using various marketing tactics to promote interest in using Glo Sens. Before the official launch date, BAT Korea released a promotional music video on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwjGi3PHhk8&list=RDLwjGi3PHhk8&start_radio=1&t=0). This was the first time in Korea that a company had employed such a unique tactic in Korea to promote its new product. Under Korean law, the Tobacco Business Act makes it illegal to promote tobacco products with a music video that may influence teenagers to start smoking. However, due to a loophole in the current Act, e-cigarette devices, which are not treated as tobacco products in the definitions of the Act, can be promoted anywhere.8
Since 2012, the Korean hip hop genre became popular on the television reality show called ‘Show Me The Money’, featuring underground hip hop rappers going through a series of auditions. The music video developed to promote Glo Sens featured two famous Korean hip hop rappers who became popular through this TV show. They are very influential icons among Korean teenagers (figure 3). In the music video, the Glo Sens device appears often and also is referenced in the lyrics. One of the scenes in the music video portrays the two rappers pretending to experiment with the four different colours of liquids. The lyrics mention major words and phrases several times to imply that Glo Sens are special—‘Let’s go sens, my colour. Go Sens your colour’, ‘(Sens) has many flavours that make me feel different’ and ‘fusion goes’. Such messages could attract teenagers to become interested in the product and develop a desire to try vaping. The comments section of the music video suggests the same. Examples of the comments include: ‘I am a non-smoker. But this is very attractive so I would like to try.’, ‘If I vape with Sens then could I feel the same thing as those rappers?’ and ‘The world’s most luxurious tobacco ads I have ever seen.’ The music video has hit 214 479 views as of 30 January 2020. K-pop is a highly popular genre of music for young people across the globe; this may explain why BAT exploited it for advertising their new products. Surveillance of music videos and policies prohibiting tobacco product advertising in such media are needed.
In addition to the music video, BAT Korea is also engaged in aggressive marketing tactics through Glo Sens official website, such as providing discount coupons and selling limited-edition devices that have been engraved with special designs.9 Despite strong government regulations, tobacco companies continue to find innovative ways to market products to teenagers and young people. There is a need to reinforce existing tobacco control policies; particularly, restrictions should be placed on the entry of new tobacco products into the market and marketing should be monitored and regulated to protect youth from gaining access to and using these new tobacco products.
Data availability statement
Data are available in a public, open access repository.
Contributors JY and JK collected and analysed BAT’s marketing activities under the supervision of SL. JY prepared the first draft of the manuscript. JK and SL reviewed all of the drafts and helped to prepare the final manuscript.
Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.