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Sri Lanka: BAT’s hack trick
  1. D Simpson
  1. International Agency on Tobacco and Health, Tavistock House, Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9LG, UK, Tel: +44 (0)20 7387 9898, Fax: +44 (0)20 7387 9841Email: ds{at}

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    Despite persistent activity by energetic and dedicated groups and individuals in Sri Lanka, there is still little sign of the government really embracing tobacco control; and there are still frequent reminders of which side seems to be winning the tobacco war. One reason may be that in official circles, and among the business community, the tobacco industry is still not seen as the pariah it is, allowing it access to activities that only serve to prolong its ability to suppress the widespread dissemination of the health message.

    The Editors Guild of Sri Lanka recently honoured five senior journalists with gold medals for long and distinguished service, at its annual “Journalism Awards for Excellence” ceremony held at a prestigious hotel in Mount Lavinia. One of the co-sponsors was Ceylon Tobacco Company (CTC), BAT’s local subsidiary. Others, who still do not seem to fear their brand images becoming tainted with tobacco, included a national airline, banks, the national lotteries board, the board of control for cricket, and several newspaper groups. In all the feel good publicity, it is hardly surprising to find a lack of reporting on the massive health and social costs imposed by the products of one of the sponsors; and journalists tempted to bite the hand that feeds the scheme are risking their copy being spiked, at the very least, or possibly more serious professional consequences. Last year, The Island newspaper printed comments from a health advocate criticising the awards scheme and pointing out how it prevented journalists from writing freely about tobacco. But this small success was short lived: two days later, the paper did a U turn, running a sharp attack on the health worker’s comments.

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    No sooner had the Indian parliament declared a ban on tobacco advertising and promotion than Godfrey Philips, Indian subsidiary of Philip Morris, placed this ad on billboards all over Mumbai (formerly Bombay), promoting its Platinum cigarettes. In addition, they got the popular local newspaper Mid Day to distribute leaflets carrying the same ad, with more printed on many pages. The leaflet also announced a contest, for which entrants had to buy the cigarettes. Ironically the leaflet, titled “Understanding Women”, explored the emerging roles of the new Indian woman. As with many countries in the region, cigarette smoking rates are low among women, presenting a tempting potential new market for western tobacco companies.

    BAT uses the same trick in other countries. For several years, its sponsorship of a sports journalism award in Uganda seemed to do the trick, with few journalists willing to mention how utterly incompatible cigarettes were with sporting achievement. But eventually, bad publicity led the Uganda sports press association to give them the push (see

    ). Sri Lankan colleagues can take heart that despite the seemingly impenetrable alliance between tobacco and the hacks, it can be done.

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