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Thailand: how to stop a canal being used to launder images
  1. David Simpson

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    Bangkok has been called the Venice of the East on account of its numerous canals criss-crossing the metropolis with their famous floating markets. One of the canals—the Saen Saeb—remains a significant artery for transport and the alleviation of flooding, and in former times it was also a centre for marine commerce. Many people used the 72 km canal to travel to and from Bangkok to Chacoengsao Province in the East. But the pleasant way of life on the Saen Saeb canal has changed. Now it buzzes with mosquitoes and other insects, especially at night, and travel on it is no longer leisurely because boats speed along to get through the polluted waters as quickly as possible.

    All these culminated in the Keep Saen Saeb Canal Clean Project, created by the NATION Multimedia Group which owns several print and electronic (TV) media, including the second most popular English language daily newspaper and Bangkok Business, the most popular Thai language business daily. The project was publicised in these newspapers over four weeks last autumn, with half page advertisements showing the logos of its three sponsors. The principal sponsor was British American Tobacco (BAT). An ad in early October publicised Canal Lovers Day festival, when the Bangkok governor received the funds donated by sponsors, including BAT's local manager. Publicity of the event included television coverage and billboards along the sides of the canal. The organisers said the publicity would run right though until the end of March 2002.

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    Billboard alongside the Saen Saeb canal in Bangkok, featuring the British American Tobacco logo. Although BAT were the main sponsors of the Keep Saen Saeb Canal Clean Project, the company's funding was described by one Thai health official as "this blood-stained donation to charity", and the publicity was promptly stopped.

    Dr Hatai Chitanondh, president of the Thailand Health Promotion Institute, was appalled by what he described as “this blood-stained donation to charity”, and set about compiling a dossier of all the worst aspects of BAT's operations. The result, a 12 page document, Facts about BAT, aimed to inform ordinary people, in clear and simple language, about the real nature of tobacco companies—how they know that cigarettes are addictive, manipulating nicotine to hook consumers, sabotaging tobacco control in developing countries, their contempt of the World Health Organization, their targeting of youth and women, price collusion, smuggling, and image laundering—with all the key points illustrated from internal industry documents, many of them from BAT. Dr Chitanondh sent the dossier to the chairman of the NATION Multimedia Group asking him to reconsider BAT's sponsorship. The result? The NATION Multimedia Group promptly discontinued the publicity and handed over the funds to the districts along the Saen Saeb canal, to continue the good work without any more fanfare.