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South Asia: the party goes on
  1. David Simpson

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    As we know, international tobacco companies are hard at work to reinvent their images, particularly in the west where people increasingly disapprove of their activities. At the same time, as we also know, their behaviour in the new markets of the developing world has not changed one iota, except perhaps to intensify with each passing month.

    Pakistan has already been suffering a sustained onslaught of tobacco promotion clearly aimed at youth for many years (see Tobacco Control 2001;10:93–4 and Tobacco Control 2000;9:361, for examples). Have the international tobacco companies toned down their marketing recently, in line with the new sense of corporate responsibility they claim? Did they, as perhaps only a hopeless idealist might wonder, think it better corporate ethics to reduce their barrage of positive images for cigarettes in view of the nail biting, nuclear clouded tension over Pakistan's dispute with neighbouring India over Kashmir, or its struggle to house refugees fleeing from war torn Afghanistan? Of course we know the answer: absolutely no change at all.

    Increasingly, as in other parts of the region, tobacco companies are reaching Pakistan's adolescents via their heroes. Take Said, for example, a tall, handsome television and film actor, adored by girls and sure to pull a crowd—a very young crowd—wherever he goes. He is known to millions through his starring role in one of the country's most popular television drama series. What a catch, then, for British American Tobacco (BAT), whose Gold Street cigarettes he has been helping to promote. Interestingly, the brand bears a remarkable resemblance to the colours and design of the company's Benson & Hedges brand, using the same gold background together with a similar font for the name. And in keeping with the international companies' use of western references to present an upmarket image, everything on a Gold Street pack is in English—except for the Urdu health warning.

    Not to be outdone, Red and White brand, made by a Philip Morris subsidiary, has run ads featuring a veritable Alladin's cave of desirable consumer goods to tempt the would-be upwardly mobile—a sleek BMW sports car, ultra slim laptop computers and mobile telephones, as well as the ubiquitous cigarette lighters—all to be won in a promotion in February. Ads appeared in journals such as The Cricketer, which covers the country's most popular sport, whose most ardent fans are teenage boys. No doubt Philip Morris would say that it was only targeting “young adults” who are, of course, fully informed about the risks of smoking. They could even point to the health warnings on the promotional ads, situated in the bottom left-hand corner of the ad shown here. Even in the original, it is so small as to be almost illegible.

    Later in the year, to capitalise on World Cup soccer fever, Diplomat brand, also from Philip Morris, linked itself to the familiar range of toys for boys. In addition, for the three luckiest winners, there was a whole kilogram of gold, not just your regular ingot, but a model of the World Cup soccer stadium, cheekily embossed with the brand's name, though executed, like the concept of the promotion, with scant regard for taste.

    Elsewhere in South Asia, too, the high tide of tobacco advertising has shown no signs of receding. In Sri Lanka, Philip Morris used a new trick in this region, attempting to exploit some of the most familiar, Hollywood friendly icons of grass roots American culture. In a colourful Marlboro promotion, entrants stood to win one of five classic American cars, an original Wurlitzer jukebox, the ubiquitous travel bag, or a “classic American” Zippo lighter.

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    BAT has enlisted TV star Said to promote its Gold Street brand in Pakistan.

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    Marlboro promotional campaign advertisements in Sri Lanka, in which entrants could win a classic American car.

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    Philip Morris ads for its Red and White brand, which appeared in the Pakistan sports journal The Cricketer—a popular magazine for teenage boys.

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