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India: bravery awards update
  1. David Simpson

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    As noted in our last edition, an outrageous cigarette promotion by Philip Morris in India links its Red & White cigarette brand with bravery and other forms of selfless service to humanity through an annual bravery award. Operating at state level, the scheme maximises regional press coverage, with flurries of positive associations when the winners' details are announced. In all the pomp and glitter of the judging and awards processes, it seems that no-one sits back to consider whether some awards might not just have a touch of irony that could come back to haunt the sponsors. In January, for example, did it not occur to anyone at PM's publicity machine that a link with dead bodies might not be quite the association the company was trying to cultivate? For in the state of Maharastra, of which Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) is the capital, one of the winners was Mr Chandrakant Mehar, 45, whose gold medal in the “Acts of Social Courage” category was for getting dead bodies donated to medical research.

    Apparently Mr Mehar, a milk seller by trade, believes so passionately that medical schools should have all the dead bodies they need for teaching and research that he has spent all his spare time over the past 17 years convincing people to donate their bodies to the medical college of Nagpur, in his home state. By the time his citation had been submitted to the 10th Red & White Bravery Awards judges, the bodies of around 200 people had already been passed to the college as a result of his efforts, and he had persuaded another thousand or so who are still alive to pledge that theirs will follow in due course.

    Perhaps it is all part of a highly practical view of man's life cycle, originally developed several millennia ago in some little known corner of India's long tradition of philosophy, and imbued with a particularly stoical acceptance of life's many sufferings. In India, these include a massive amount of cancer and other diseases caused by tobacco, resulting in at least 600 000 premature deaths each year, possibly as many as a million. The theory might go like this: cigarettes kill about half their lifetime users before their time, thereby increasing the potential availability of dead bodies for research. This in turn helps train more doctors and scientists, who produce new advances in the prevention and cure of disease, thus causing more people to live longer. This means that more cigarettes are sold, which kill about half their lifetime users . . . A fantasy? Of course, but so is the association of cigarettes with bravery and social service. One inescapable reality, however, is that this particular prize has inadvertently, if appropriately and inextricably, associated Philip Morris and its Red & White cigarettes with the fate of so many of its users.

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    Despite Myanmar still being a comparatively closed society, British American Tobacco seems to have had no trouble moving in and putting up this giant billboard in the capital, Rangoon.