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Bangladesh: analysing BAT's youth programme

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Research by a coalition of health groups has led to strong condemnation of a new scheme launched in July by BAT. BAT described its programme as a “comprehensive campaign on youth smoking prevention”, and it was formally launched by Bangladesh's Home Secretary at a meeting in a prestigious hotel, attended by a large group of what BAT calls “stakeholders”. BAT loves that word, part of a sophistry in its ongoing public relations war against effective health measures. The term implies that BAT is working in a responsible partnership with all sorts of people and organisations that, like it or not, have a “stake” in what the company clearly intends is the continuing, business-as-usual process of tobacco promotion and sales. “Stakeholders” include members of the government, media, non-government organisations, and celebrities.

A glossy BAT brochure showing scenes from TV commercials in its youth campaign.

However, health groups are urging people not to cooperate with the campaign, pointing out that it is only intended to improve BAT's image and to prevent effective tobacco control action being taken. Work for a Better Bangladesh, Bangladesh Anti-Tobacco Alliance, and PATH Canada published a damning report about BAT's campaign, which closely resembles others BAT is running elsewhere, especially in developing countries where at present the company does not face serious restrictions on cigarette promotion.

The health groups' report includes the results of detailed focus group research and a survey of 300 boys aged 12–15 years. Most of the boys in the survey (88%) said they had never smoked, with only 3% reporting currently smoking at least one cigarette a week; however, as with the focus group participants, they were familiar with cigarette ads, especially those for BAT brands. Almost all the boys (96%) reported having seen a cigarette ad on television, and 81% of these had seen ads for Gold Leaf and 69% Benson & Hedges (B&H), both BAT brands. In addition, 78% said they had seen a B&H rock concert. While most had seen them on TV, 11% said they had seen one live, despite BAT's claim that they do not allow people under 18 to attend the concerts. Those who watch TV rarely were as likely as those who watch it frequently to have seen a B&H concert, implying either great frequency of concert showings, or that students make an effort to see them. The likelihood of having seen a B&H rock concert also varied little by age, with the majority in all age groups having seen one. The report quotes one young student's conclusion: “The first goal of Benson & Hedges rock concerts is to publicise their company, and indirectly to attract adolescents to smoking.”