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Monday July 22, 2024

World No-Tobacco Day: protecting children from tobacco

By Dr Ayesha Naveed
June 01, 2024
A representational image of a No Smoking warning. — Canva File
A representational image of a 'No Smoking' warning. — Canva File

World No Tobacco Day, observed annually on May 31, focuses this year on ‘Protecting Children from Tobacco Industry Interference’. It is essential to understand why the tobacco industry targets the youth and the harmful effects of tobacco intake, in any form, on the human body. One of the main components of tobacco is nicotine. Nicotine is a psychoactive compound that exerts profound effects on the brain’s reward system, neurotransmitter activity, and neural circuits, contributing to addiction and impacting various cognitive and emotional functions.

Why is the youth so easily influenced and targeted? During adolescence, part of the brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control, the pre-frontal cortex, is still undergoing development. This developmental stage makes young individuals susceptible to risk-taking behaviours concerning their health and safety. This includes the usage of nicotine and other substances. There are many risks associated with exposing their developing brains to nicotine, such as increased vulnerability to long-term consequences like nicotine addiction, mood disorders, and enduring reductions in impulse control, potentially damaging brain regions crucial for attention and learning processes.

Nicotine can have significant effects on the brain, particularly when it comes to addiction. The brain releases a chemical known as dopamine, which causes mood-altering changes that temporarily make the person feel good. Inhaled smoke delivers nicotine to the brain within 20 seconds, making it highly addictive; giving feelings of relaxation and pleasure. This level of addiction can be compared to that of opioids, alcohol, and cocaine. Repeated use results in the brain reducing the number of dopamine receptors, which hence creates tolerance and subsequently reinforces addiction. Furthermore, nicotine affects various neurotransmitters, impacting mood regulation, cognitive function, and attention span. Chronic nicotine exposure leads to long-term changes in brain structure and function, altering synaptic transmission, receptor density, and neuronal connectivity, contributing to dependence and addiction. A drop in nicotine levels leads to withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, increased appetite, and leading to consequent nicotine cravings which can make quitting quite a challenging task. The tobacco industry utilises behavioural science research to market tobacco to the youth through various strategies, such as digital marketing, which intensifies exposure to tobacco advertisements through multiple channels more than traditional marketing.

The tobacco industry employs various tactics to target youth despite regulations aimed at preventing such practices. These include advertising and marketing strategies that appeal to young people, such as colourful packaging, catchy slogans, and imagery associating smoking with glamour, independence, and social status. Product placement in movies, TV shows, and music videos which normalise smoking, making it seem desirable to young audiences. The introduction of flavoured tobacco products, like fruit or candy-flavoured cigarettes and e-cigarettes, masks the harsh taste of tobacco, increasing its palatability. Tobacco companies also leverage social media platforms and influencers to reach young audiences through sponsored content and partnerships with famous personalities; this includes sponsorship of events, such as music concerts and sporting events, increases brand visibility and associates tobacco products with activities that appeal to young people. Offering discounts, coupons, and promotional giveaways makes tobacco products more accessible and appealing to young consumers with limited disposable income. Despite increasing scrutiny and regulations in many countries, the tobacco industry continues to adapt its marketing strategies to reach young people, often exploiting legal loopholes or operating in regions with less stringent regulations.

What is the way forward? Firstly, educating parents and raising awareness amongst adolescents is incredibly important. Parents are encouraged to foster strong relationships with their children by spending quality time together and help regulate their children’s electronic device usage by involving them in extra-curricular or outdoor activities. When children face certain challenges, seeking help from mental health professionals such as psychiatrists and psychologists is advised to help them overcome whatever struggles they are facing. Lastly, government officials and policymakers to formulate and implement policies to monitor tobacco marketing to protect our youth further. Through this, we can create a supportive environment that promotes children’s and adolescents’ well-being and healthy development.


The writer is a Consultant Psychiatrist from Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital & Research Centre, Lahore