Towards tobacco-free generations: children neurobiologically vulnerable to nicotine but still a target of tobacco marketing

WHO/Malin Bring

Several Member States in the WHO European Region are moving towards becoming “tobacco-free”, which means having a smoking prevalence of 5% or less. To achieve this, countries must address a number of tobacco-related issues that specifically impact children, and work to protect children from the harmful effects of tobacco.

A new report from WHO/Europe identifies tools and offers novel approaches that can – and should – be used to pave the way towards a tobacco-free Region. A series of web stories highlights some of the report’s key findings and recommendations, and shares examples of measures being taken within countries of the Region to fight the harmful effects of tobacco.

Children are neurobiologically more vulnerable to nicotine addiction than adults, making it even more vital to protect them, wherever possible, from exposure to tobacco. This vulnerability stems from the fact that the prefrontal cortex, which is a brain region involved in inhibiting risky behaviours and rationalizing long-term goals, is still not fully developed in children. If smoking initiation occurs before the early 20s, it not only increases the likelihood that addiction will develop, but can also impair the ability to exercise control over smoking later in life.

Despite evidence showing that children are particularly vulnerable to nicotine addiction, the marketing strategies of tobacco companies often specifically target this group. The tobacco industry has intentionally marketed its products to children as young as 13 for decades, often through tobacco promotion in movies and at concerts. The industry has also striven to normalize smoking by depicting it as a desirable adult behaviour, reinforcing the idea of smoking as a rite of passage that all children should experience.

Evidence indicates that children as young as 3 respond to tobacco advertisements. This underscores the importance of adequately regulating the marketing of tobacco to children. Most children in the Region, however, are not protected from tobacco industry marketing.

Taking action to protect children in Ireland

Ireland has taken many measures to denormalize tobacco use in order to minimize the exposure of children to tobacco products. These measures aim to imply that smoking is not, and should not be, a normal activity in society. They include plain packaging, restrictions on the sale and display of tobacco products, bans on smoking in cars, and smoke-free outdoor areas.

The Department of Health’s Tobacco Free Ireland strategy states, “Making smoking less attractive to children and young people and increasing its social unacceptability are key elements in the denormalization of tobacco.”