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Caught red-handed in January last year developing its anonymous City Gorilla website promoting the most “happening, cool nightclubs in town” (as the youthful target audience might put it), which just happen to be stuffed with British American Tobacco (BAT) cigarette brands (Tobacco Control 2001;10:92), the British based transnational tobacco company has been found out again. Once more the promotional tool it was secretly developing is a website that looks like an independent guide to bars and nightclubs in European cities.
A previously confidential internal memorandum revealed that www.citygobo.com was set up by BAT to encourage people to attend venues where it sells and promotes cigarettes. The Citygobo domain was registered last July by CG Ventures, which has the same address as BAT's London headquarters. BAT, which is spending around US$3.6 million to make the site the main source for information on fashionable bars and restaurants, denied that it was a marketing tool for cigarettes, saying it wanted to create “the best web-based nightlife guide to strengthen our relationships with the venues”. (On learning about the scheme, the Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) team on the other side of London immediately set up www.citygobo2.com to reveal the truth about the BAT project to websurfing teenagers.)
Tobacco control advocates believe young people visiting the bars will be subjected to heavy marketing for BAT's “coolest” brand, Lucky Strike. “It is interesting that the first cities featured are in Belgium and Poland,” said Luk Joossens, senior consultant to the European Union on anti-cancer initiatives. “These are countries where an advertising ban is in place, but opportunities for point of sale promotions still exist. Trendy bars are the only place where you can target this audience.” BAT, which said the website was still in a “pilot” stage, insisted that cigarettes were sold legally in these establishments and pointed out that the “average” age of night clubbers was 18, without apparently understanding that as some were clearly quite a few years older, a similar number must therefore be younger than 18, the youngest age at which children, according to tobacco industry rhetoric, may first “choose” whether or not to start.
Interestingly, the magic 18 is a substantial seven years less than the youngest age for advertising models that BAT sets for itself in the ill fated self regulatory code it has proposed together with Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco, in an effort to head off an effective WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. But perhaps that is to ensure that 18 year olds still have role models significantly older than themselves, on the principle that the coolest fashions to impressionable young minds are those espoused by people a few years up the age ladder.
On the same principle, it is fairly obvious that if, like the CityGobo website, you make something cool for an 18 year old, it becomes cool for younger children, too. Internal tobacco industry documents show that tobacco companies have long used this technique to attract very young smokers. As restrictions progressively reduce opportunities for overtly linking cigarettes with things that young people think are most cool and “happening”, rather than with foul breath, skin ageing, miserable disability, and premature death, we shall see many more tricks like this in the future.
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