Researchers say young are vulnerable and have called for app stores to explore ways of regulating content.
Health professionals and anti-smoking groups have condemned smartphone apps which promote cigarettes to youths, with some claiming them to be attempts to subvert strict advertising bans.
Researchers have identified 107 pro-smoking apps - some using cartoons or images of cigarette brands - which they say violate the ban on advertising and promotion of tobacco products.
The apps are available to New Zealanders via the Apple App Store and the Android Market.
The researchers, led by Nasser BinDihm of Sydney Medical School's school of public health, searched the online stores in February for pro-smoking apps and found 42 on the Android Market had been used more than 11 million times, while 65 apps were available on the Apple App Store. The research, published in the Tobacco Control medical journal, showed most popular apps were for smoking simulation.
The researchers have warned that young people are particularly vulnerable and have called for app stores to find ways of regulating the content.
"App stores have a moral (and arguably) a legal responsibility to ensure they have the infrastructure to comply with World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and other laws restricting advertising of tobacco to minors," they said.
Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) communications manager Michael Colhoun was not surprised to see increased use of unregulated ways to market smoking as the proposed plain packaging legislation would remove the last existing advertising channel.
"There's no age restriction on using apps and who's behind the app doesn't need to be named, so the potential for tobacco companies to use this channel does exist."
Mr Colhoun said while it was impossible to tell if the tobacco industry was backing the development of any of the apps, "history shows they have been successful in searching for loopholes to promote their deadly products".
Cancer Society national tobacco control adviser Skye Kimura said it was another ploy from the tobacco industry to manipulate the youth market. "More young people are using smartphones regardless of their demographic or economic makeup ... So really it's just about the industry manipulating the youth market again and finding ways to get around our legislation and the loopholes to advertise the products."
But New Zealand's largest tobacco supplier British American Tobacco NZ has distanced itself from such apps. BATNZ head of corporate and regulatory affairs Susan Jones said the organisation was not involved with the production, promotion or use of apps, or any other digital marketing solutions to promote tobacco products, brands or smoking.
"In our view, such activity would breach the Smoke-free Environments Act which bans the promotion and advertising of tobacco products."
107 pro-smoking smartphone applications
65 for Apple devices
42 for Android devices
11m downloads worldwide on Android devices