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Pakistan: pilgrimage to tobacco

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The “Stop!” advertising campaign being run by the Pakistan Tobacco Company (a subsidiary of BAT), declaring that “As a responsible corporate citizen, PTC firmly believes that smoking is an informed adult choice”.

Pakistan is fast becoming an adventure playground for young tobacco advertisers. After the massive media coverage surrounding BAT's floating cigarette ad (or “ocean going yacht”) visiting Karachi last year (Tobacco Control2000;9:361), the country continues to be subjected to a barrage of new advertisements. In cities, pop music is all the rage with youth, and thus a perfect way for cigarette brand promotions to infect them with misleading associations, while on television, a song is sponsored by a cigarette company every day. On one night earlier this year, all three TV channels carried a programme, Music Millennium, in which the stage was full of glamorous cigarette advertisements, and a host of pop stars performed. All this is in addition to a continuous torrent of regular cigarette advertising on TV. And to show how keenly it supports the country's economic development, one tobacco company is offering young entrepreneurs handsome loans for setting up new businesses.

Meanwhile, more traditional forms of promotion are not neglected. Newspaper and billboard ads continue to flourish, carrying regular cigarette ads as well as increasing numbers promoting them via competitions. There has been a weekly draw for a car (Embassy brand, owned by BAT), another for a Mercedes, with the televised draw made by the country's leading movie actress (Capstan, BAT), and a third in which a 1 kg gold ingot is given away each week (Diplomat brand, Lakson). And almost unbelievably, in a promotion plumbing new depths of bad taste in a strictly Muslim country, BAT has even promoted its Gold Leaf brand through a weekly competition whose winners are given air tickets to Saudi Arabia, for the Umrah pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Lest any of this excess should nudge the government into thinking about legislation, the leading companies, BAT and Lakson, have produced their own self regulatory code of conduct on tobacco promotion and sales. Predictably, it is a compilation of the most ineffective measures developed over years of successful efforts to prevent or delay legislation in the west. Ensuring maximum effects on both opinion leaders and children, BAT has added the usual advertising campaign proclaiming its youth education programme, complete with repeated emphasis on the belief of this “responsible corporate citizen” that smoking is “an informed adult choice”. It has even introduced “on-pack inscriptions to prevent under-age smoking”. This will be a great relief to Pakistani parents. No doubt any errant child who foolishly picks up a pack of cigarettes made by BAT will, on sight of the inscription, drop it instantly and go in search of a more traditional childhood pastime.

Against such a depressing background, it is encouraging to learn of any blow for health. One such is a calendar produced by the British based Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance company in aid of the Pakistan Cancer Society, with each two month spread featuring some creditable samples of anti-smoking posters designed by children. Another is the example set by Karachi's prestigious Aga Khan University, which began the year by making its campus smoke-free, while offering smoking cessation clinics for employees. Against the onslaught of current tobacco promotions, these may be small victories, but they are nevertheless important, demonstrating the emergence of Pakistan's tobacco control community from relatively small scale, sporadic activity into programmes affecting some important institutions.

Part of a calendar produced by the Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance company in aid of the Pakistan Cancer Society. Each two month spread features anti-smoking posters designed by children.

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