By Freddie Dawson ECigIntelligence staff
A letter to the British Medical Journal (BMJ) raises an alarm about vape shops using Pokémon Go to lure children into their insidious dens of vice and nicotine like some latter-day version of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The letter is very much in the hand-wringing style of the best “Won’t someone think of the children?” clickbait journalism. But that doesn’t mean it is 100% without merit, and avoiding cartoon imagery is an easy win for the industry. It is rather like removing diacetyl from e-liquids: an easily accomplished task that would reap positive PR for the industry – or at least eliminate a serious amount of negative publicity.
But it is also one of those things that can be easily ignored in the headlong rush of getting ahead in the volatile e-cigarette market.
It seems unlikely that many e-cigarette businesses – particularly independent vape shops like those the letter seems to focus on – would go out of their way to attract children to their stores.
It is more likely the owners simply didn’t stop to consider kids when blinded by the large number of older people who are also obsessed with the Pokémon game. The article does point out, after all, that the average age of a Pokémon Go player is 25.
A friend of mine in the U.S. found a rare Pokémon around the corner from a Burger King, went in to get a burger, saw an eight-year-old playing the game and told the kid about the rare Pokémon. The youngster asked to be shown where and it was only as he was about to leave the store with the child to show them that my friend realised that luring an eight-year-old out of a Burger King was probably not the best idea.
It seems likely that this was the attitude under which certain vape stores have apparently put up Pokémon Go-related promotions. They wanted to give something new to their customers and attract new clientele, without thinking how it might also look to children.
Then there’s the issue of in-game promotions. The makers of Pokémon Go, the game developer Niantic, have an option for businesses to purchase in-game boosts that make a particular real-world location more enticing to players. Vape stores could purchase these if they wanted and there would currently be no way to specify that they should apply to over-18s only.
There’s an argument that dropping a lure at a vape shop, where kids can’t legally buy things potentially harmful to their health, is better than having a tie-in promotion with McDonald’s (which the game does), where they can and do.
Beyond that there is also the automated side of the game – something the letter-writers from the University of Southern California and the University of Pittsburgh briefly touch upon.
Any location where lots of people play the game becomes important in the game. It might become a “gym”, where people can train and fight, or a PokeStop where they can get new stuff. Which is why, as the letter-writers mention, the developers had to de-list sensitive locations such the Holocaust Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and a number of churches.
If a bunch of bored vapers sit around playing Pokémon Go in their shop it would probably have a similar, albeit smaller, effect. At least one London pub has put up a sign asking customers to stop playing the game while there as it was becoming a stopping-off point for kids on their way home from school.
Much to the disappointment of conspiracy theorists everywhere, e-cigarette businesses are most probably not luring kiddies in with promises of cartoon Pokémon and candy flavours only to get them hooked on nicotine and send them down the road for their first packet of smokes.
It is much more probable that a combination of ill thought-out promotions, in-game lures meant for 18+ customers, and bored employees or vapers fiddling on their phones have led to an increase in cross-over between vape and game.
As Pokémon Go is already heading the way of other online phenomena like Second Life and Angry Birds, it really seems we don’t have much to worry about.
Still, it would be a good step for any vape store to ensure that it’s not obviously associated with Pokémon Go. There’s enough innuendo out there already about the industry targeting kids – we should seek to minimise it where we can.