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Why are tobacco firms targetting the poor?

Researchers have found that flavour restrictions affect tobacco buyers differently, depending on the socioeconomic status of the user.

Australia is about to introduce a raft of new restrictions on vaping
Australia is about to introduce a raft of new restrictions on vaping - Copyright AFP Raul ARBOLEDA
Australia is about to introduce a raft of new restrictions on vaping - Copyright AFP Raul ARBOLEDA

Researchers have found that flavour restrictions affect tobacco buyers differently, depending on the socioeconomic status of the user. This differential suggests that tobacco firms are reaping greater profits by targetting those in lower socioeconomic groups. Consequently, the health impacts upon the working class are greater.

Restricting menthol flavour in cigarettes while making nicotine replacement therapy, such as a skin patch that can help ease withdrawal, more available and affordable has the potential to reduce socioeconomic disparities in tobacco use. This requires regulation in order to push tobacco companies to remove flavourings in their addictive products.

E-cigarette user blowing a cloud of aerosol (vapor). The activity is known as cloud-chasing. Image: micadew from US – Smoke Screen, CC 3.0

That was one of the key findings in a study published in an academic paper featured in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research. The illuminating study is titled “Selective Reduction of Socioeconomic Disparities in the Experimental Tobacco Marketplace: Effects of Cigarette and E-cigarette Flavor Restrictions.”

The study marks a new use of existing data, drawn from the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC’s Addiction Recovery Research Center.

For the study, the researchers analysed data from their Experimental Tobacco Marketplace to look beyond broad effects of tax and regulatory policies for the journal’s special issue on the health equity effects of restricting flavoured nicotine.

© Denis Charlet, AFP

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Smoking also accounts for more than 30 percent of the difference in life expectancy among socioeconomic groups, according to the study’s lead author, Assistant Professor Roberta Freitas-Lemos.

The tobacco industry has seemingly more heavily marketed flavoured tobacco products, such as menthol cigarettes, in communities with lower household incomes and educational attainment. This policy is contributing to increased adverse health outcomes in these communities and is creating a disparity in health outcomes based on social class.

Other factors leading to working class people being more likely to smoke are: reduced access to affordable smoking cessation, social factors such as greater tobacco use and reduced support for quitting among friends, and greater exposure to stress and adversity

Freitas-Lemos said the team saw an opportunity to use the marketplace to extend the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s work in addressing equity and inclusion in health research.

Vaping has become a new battleground between tobacco lobbyists and anti-smoking campaigners
Vaping has become a new battleground between tobacco lobbyists and anti-smoking campaigners – Copyright AFP/File JOEL SAGET

Freitas-Lemos adds: “We realized we could use an existing data set, split the sample in two based on socioeconomic status, and compare how policies implemented affected purchase behaviours of different groups,” she said.

Furthermore, the academic states: “The study has shown us that flavour restrictions may decrease tobacco-related disease and death rates.”

The research also points to the need to evaluate tobacco restrictions in a broader context, as cigarette substitution is highly dependent on what other products are available.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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