Companies with commitments to harm reduction have increased their focus on youth access prevention, but the impact of these policies is not clear

Companies such as Altria Group Inc (Altria), British American Tobacco Plc (BAT), Imperial Brands Plc (Imperial), Japan Tobacco Inc (JTI), Philip Morris International Inc (PMI), and Swedish Match AB (Swedish Match) have created programs focused on age verification, in conjunction with retailers and through social media channels.

Several companies have also begun funding and working with external bodies to ensure age verification compliance. We Card is a US-based, cross-industry age verification program that was created with Altria, BAT, Imperial, and JTI as supporting members. Other similar initiatives include the Responsible Tobacco Retailing (RTR) program in the UK, which was set up by Imperial, JTI and PMI, and Altria’s Assurance of Voluntary Compliance program. Evidence of age verification initiatives is more often seen in high-medium income countries, with limited activity visible in low-medium income countries where youth uptake is higher.

Applying different technologies and leveraging third parties is critical to prevent uptake of any nicotine or tobacco product by youth and avoid potential unintended consequences of reduced-risk alternatives.

Altria, BAT, and PMI each outline detailed policies and practices for the use of social media and online marketing, in order to address growing concern over youth consumption of reduced-risk products. Altria claims to educate high-risk users on reduced-risk products through social media but has procedures in place to ensure it does so responsibly. PMI has defined protocols when it opens an account on a social media platform stating that the platform must have “its own native age-gating technology” and audience measurement data must “show that the audience is at least 75% adult.” Furthermore, if a platform has self- declared age data, PMI will employ a third party to verify this. BAT also restricts the products for which it uses social media, stating: “We never use open social media to promote our cigarette brands; however, where legally allowed, we use social media to communicate regarding our new category products to support adult smokers who are looking for alternatives to smoking.” It further stipulates that it will only use social media partners that have a majority adult following and that it uses analytic tools to support this.

Companies are starting to respond to the growing concern over youth consumption of reduced-risk products. They need to limit the target audience of these products to smoking adults only, and ensure that this can be verified. Applying different technologies and leveraging third parties is critical to prevent uptake of any nicotine or tobacco product by youth and avoid potential unintended consequences of reduced-risk alternatives.

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