Drop in teenage smoking linked to rise in mobile use

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The teenage passion for mobile phones may be having an unexpected health benefit - by taking the place of smoking, experts suggest.

The teenage passion for mobile phones may be having an unexpected health benefit - by taking the place of smoking, experts suggest.

Lounging on street corners with a mobile may be as effective a way for teenagers to look cool and grown-up as dangling a cigarette between the lips and blowing smoke over passers-by, according to Anne Charlton, emeritus professor at the University of Manchester and a specialist in children's perceptions of advertising, and Clive Bates, director of the anti-smoking pressure group Ash.

It could explain the fall in teenage smoking from 30 per cent in 1996 to 23 per cent last year. By last August 70 per cent of children aged 15 to 17 were estimated to own a mobile.

Writing in the British Medical Journal the authors say that marketing of mobiles may be achieving what years of warnings about tobacco have failed to do.

"The mobile is an effective competitor to cigarettes in the market for products that offer teenagers adult style and individuality. Mobile-phone advertising is rooted in promoting self-image and identity, and as such resembles cigarette advertising," the authors say.

Shortage of cash may be an additional explanation for the drop in smoking as young people spend more on pay-as-you-go phone cards. "Smoking may come to be seen as 'old technology' and the bright new world of text messaging, e-mail, WAP, and 3G phones could become the new aspirational gateway to adult life," they say.

But Mr Bates warned parents against making "lazy comparisons" between the health risks of smoking and mobiles. "It is much too simplistic to compare the health risks. When any new technology is introduced on a wide scale, society should always be on its guard... but we know for sure that smoking kills 120,000 people a year and nothing else comes close to that."

Latest figures for teenage smoking in 2000 are not available but with continuing strong sales of mobiles it is hoped the rate will continue to fall.

Mr Bates said: "How to persuade kids not to smoke has always been the Holy Grail of health-promotion campaigners and it is just possible that the mobile-phone industry has stumbled across something that works."

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