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As students returned to their places of education after the long summer vacation last autumn, some of them must have been pleasantly surprised to be presented with a useful gift to help organise both their studies and their social life during the coming academic year: an attractive, pocket sized “Student's diary”. The donor, a company called DownTown based in the capital, Prague, had organised the production of the free diary, a previously unknown concept to Czech students, whose requirements are normally met by a publication prepared and sold every year by each faculty.
But despite DownTown's intentions, not all students received the gift. Members of staff at Masaryk University in the southern city of Brno noticed that the top of all the right-hand pages of the diary was adorned with a coloured band showing the logo of the French cigarette brand Gauloises Blondes. In addition, each coloured band carried, alternately, a quotation from a famous person, or the brand's name. Appalled by the temerity of the scheme, Masaryk's rector, Professor Jirí Zlatuska, immediately ordered that no students in any faculty of the university should receive the diaries, and called a press conference for later the same day. Staff members ensured that the diary was not distributed to students, and alerted their colleagues at other schools in Brno and at medical faculties in other parts of the country, as well as alerting colleagues overseas, and a flood of protests poured in.
It turned out that DownTown had previously contacted the university, saying it was preparing the diary, and offering to include appropriate information about the university; but it had omitted to mention that the diary would be distributed free, or that it was sponsored by a tobacco company. Despite a personal visit from DownTown's Brno representative (who got off to a bad start by complaining about the row that had been stirred up), the rector remained firm. He added that if the company found other ways to get the diaries into the hands of his students, he would launch a campaign against Gauloises, using posters from the French national anti-tobacco campaign. The strength of his stand seems to have helped convince the company to back off, though it did not stop it from posting staff in the streets near individual faculty buildings, offering the diaries to passers by including, of course, numerous students. In a more-in-than-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, it later said it accepted the rector's decision, while declaring its extreme surprise at the rejection of such a generous offer. Adverse publicity had apparently been a major factor in the climb down. Its “offer” was also spurned by other educational establishments in Brno, and thanks to the efforts of medical faculty staff, in Prague's Charles university.
While these victories were welcome news to the public health community, DownTown is known to have pursued similar efforts elsewhere, and presumably met with success in some of them. In Brno alone, it had approached the widest range of educational institutions, including technical high schools, a military academy, a university of forestry and agriculture, and an academy of art. Advertising is a relatively new phenomenon in the Czech Republic, and most people have little awareness about it how it works, presenting an added difficulty for those trying to protect public health. Medical faculty staff at Masaryk described how students had not seen the diary as much of an issue, not least because they thought advertising could not influence their own behaviour. In an unfortunate echo of tobacco industry propaganda, some even said the health warning (a small, dull block of text at the side of each Gauloises panel) offered a positive message about not smoking, especially as most were unaware that Gauloises was a cigarette. And the idea of a free diary was not unwelcome to students whose limited funds are needed for the basic necessities of life.
Nevertheless, whatever gains Gauloises made, the resistance that this cigarette promotion encountered, as with BAT's fiasco in Sri Lanka, shows that tobacco companies can no longer rely on the factor they used to dub so cynically the “open playing field” in countries that are now their priority targets.
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