3 Apr 2024

Tobacco companies using Tiktok to target young people - researcher

6:20 pm on 3 April 2024
Nicotine pouches

Snus - a pouch of powdered tobacco placed between the upper lip and the gum - cannot be sold in New Zealand. Photo: stock.adobe.com

Tobacco companies are using Tiktok to target advertising for illegal products to young people, a public health researcher says.

Chewing tobacco and snus - a pouch of powdered tobacco placed between the upper lip and the gum - cannot be sold in New Zealand.

Speculation over whether that may change has surfaced in recent months since the coalition government repealed parts of the Smokefree 2025 laws.

The associate health minister said she had asked the ministry to report on the marketing and retailing of these products, and the goverment was reviewing the regulations around all nicotine and tobacco products.

Otago University researcher Dr Jude Ball, from the Public Health Communication Centre, told Midday Report tobacco companies were paying influencers to market their products online.

"They're being paid to talk about the products, trial them and create a buzz online about these new products that are being marketed as a lifestyle product," she said.

"Something that goes with partying or that might be able to improve your performance at work - quite unsubstantiated claims of benefits from these products."

Pretty much anything was less harmful than smoking, but snus and chewing tobacco still carried consequences, Ball said.

"They are associated with a whole range of cancers, oral health problems and of course, addiction.

"There's a new class of oral nicotine products that don't have tobacco leaf, but do have nicotine. These are thought to be a cleaner product but they're very new and there's very little research that's been done on them, so the risks and benefits are unclear."

Ball wanted to see stronger restrictions for digital marketing but warned it would still be difficult to enforce.

Social media advertising was hard to regulate because it's not always clear if an influencer had put up the content of their own accord or if they were paid to do so, she said.

"Even if the intention is to provide choice to smokers who want to move to a lower harm product, in reality, what's likely to happen is these will be picked up by young people," Ball said.

Young people were often among the thousands of followers an influencer had.

Like vapes, chewing tobacco and snus were flavoured and had packaging and marketing that targeted young people too, she said.

"There is already a lot of choice for people who want to switch from smoking to lower harm products, we've got nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) for example.

"It's actually sold as a medicine in New Zealand, so that's gone through very rigourous testing to ensure it does what it says it'll do - help people quit smoking - and it's relatively safe," Ball said.

There were also vapes, and people could buy snus and chewing tobacco from international websites for personal use, she said.

It was unclear if these products were being looked at as part of the government's Smokefree 2025 strategy, Ball said.

"We haven't heard anything definitive, but the minister in charge has hinted that oral nicotine pouches may be part of their plan to address that goal."

Associate Health Minister Casey Costello said no one had raised any problems about the sale of these products with her prior to the Public Health Communication Centre putting out its statement on Wednesday.

"We don't want young people getting addicted to nicotine in any form, and I've asked the Ministry of Health, who are responsible for enforcement, to report to me on the marketing and retailing of those products here," she said.

"The government is currently looking at the regulatory regime around all nicotine and tobacco products with a view to having a system that is aimed at reducing harm, that is coherent across products, and enforceable."

Smoking tobacco was by far the most harmful for people's health, so the government was looking into the availability of other products - particularly vaping, Costello said.

"We are looking at these as smoking cessation tools, while also tightening rules to prevent youth vaping. Having stricter penalties, as we are proposing, and a better enforcement regime are needed to ensure laws are followed," she said.

"As I've said previously, there are clear issues with the current regulatory, compliance and enforcement regime, which is why we are going to strengthen it."

RNZ has contacted Minister of Health Shane Reti and British American Tobacco for comment.