The tobacco companies, including e-cig company Juul, tout their electronic age verification technology as an effective way to reduce youth use and argue against stricter regulation. I have long been concerned that this technology would also allow the companies to collect marketing information that couple be used to promote their products the second that they reached legal age.
At a recent conference for investors, Altria CEO Billy Gifford outlined precisely how Altria integrates age verification technology into its marketing:
Last year at [the Consumer Analyst Group of New York (CAGNY) conference], we discussed our retailer incentive program for in-store age validation technology as part of our comprehensive approach to underage tobacco use prevention. I am proud to say that it has now been installed in more than 104,000 stores with an additional 36,000 stores in progress. We expect to continue our work with retailers to broaden age-validation technology across more stores.
This year, we introduced incentives for retailers to include age and identity verification solutions in their digital platforms. Once a consumer is verified, retailers can then provide personalized offers and messaging from our brands within the retailer’s app. At introduction, consumers can receive offers from our smokeable and moist smokeless tobacco (MST) brands. Going forward, we expect to expand the program to include on! and other smoke-free brands. Our sales force is working with our retail trade partners to implement these solutions and we expect approximately 30,000 stores will have these capabilities by year-end. We believe this seamless integration will allow us to:
• better engage with digitally connected tobacco consumers;
• improve the strategic allocation of our promotional resources; and
• create infrastructure to support trial and awareness for smoke-free [non-cigarette] tobacco products.
Finally, we believe our digital investments will provide incremental data to help us better understand each smoker’s journey. We’re creating a unified and real-time consumer identity that ties their purchase data and interactions with our brands to our marketing communications. We believe that by using our tobacco consumer understanding and data analytics, we can recognize how an individual consumer is progressing towards smoke-free products, adapt our marketing approach and better support their transition. [emphasis added]
Altria is careful to say that this marketing only happens with age-verified people, but even that is problematic. It would not be that hard to keep track of who the underage customers are and pounce on them once they reached legal age.
Policymakers and regulators, including the FDA, have to pay attention to these systems to recognize that they could easily be turned to increasing nicotine addiction. After all, Altria (and the other companies) are not implementing these systems to reduce their sales and profits.
Thanks to Physicians for a Smoke-free Canada for bringing this to my attention in their recent blog post on what public health can learn from recent industry presentations to investors. The post is well worth reading in full; it contains other insights on how tobacco companies view the relationship between cigarettes and their new products.