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Sri Lanka: business as usual
  1. David Simpson

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    What is the real attitude of the Sri Lankan government toward tobacco? It often seems that nothing, especially the government, can or will harm the fortunes of the tobacco industry, which largely means near monopoly holder BAT (see Sri Lanka: BAT’s hack trick, Tobacco Control 2003;12:247–8). Yet at the same time, the government obviously wants to appear to be following the right course, and was among the first in the world to approve the ratification of the FCTC.

    Does it really mean business? If so, a recent plethora of aggressive promotion could mean that manufacturers are desperately making hay while the sun shines, until at last, under legislation drafted to comply with the FCTC, further opportunity for recruitment to smoking is closed off. Alternatively, it may just mean that the confident prediction of BAT and others is that in a country where it has always more or less done what it wants, the government’s interpretation of the FCTC will mean business as usual.

    Either way, BAT’s promotion of its Benson & Hedges (B&H) brand continues apace, with new packaging bearing embossed “hallmark” symbols being exploited in recent ads, aiming to impress the brand’s target audience about “quality” and “heritage” of the product. In a huge sales push—it can hardly have been to capture brand share from a rival—CTC, BAT’s local subsidiary, offered rewards to retailers for their performance in a new “Sea of Fortune” sales campaign. Clearly aimed at young males, the top prize for those who bought the new packs was a 175 cc Yamaha trail motorcycle, with 75 000 other instant gifts such as camping sets, binoculars, and watches for runners up. Retailers’ performance was evaluated once a week over four weeks, and those receiving good scores for product visibility, merchandising prominence, and other aspects of the campaign were given a “gift pack” containing a small B&H scanner radio together with the inevitable B&H T shirt.

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    An example of BAT’s advertising campaign in Sri Lanka to promote its Benson & Hedges brand.

    If “Sea of Fortune” was male oriented, BAT has not forgotten young females. It was BAT, of course, whose sales representatives in gold saris were more than generous in their promotion of B&H cigarettes to young female visitors in a night club in Sri Lanka as long ago as 1998 (see Seimon T & Mehl GL. Strategic marketing of cigarettes to young people in Sri Lanka: “Go ahead – I want to see you smoke it now”. Tobacco Control 1998;7:429–33). But since then, BAT has climbed on the “We’ve changed” bandwagon, claiming a new, scrupulously careful approach to marketing, backing it up with tons of glossy reports on social responsibility. In particular, it might have been expected to show restraint in its recent dealings with a population whose women have traditionally been non-smokers. But it hasn’t changed at all. Once again, it’s business as usual.

    In recent months, beautiful young Swedish girls in glamorous dresses have been seen moving around nightclubs in the capital, Colombo, offering free Benson & Hedges cigarettes to young people. One journalist reported that when asked who had hired them, the young women replied that it was the local tobacco company, and that their brief was to target young people, especially girls. Their assignment was to include visits to almost all the country’s nightclubs. When asked for follow up contact details, they politely refused, but perhaps remembering a briefing on industry protocol, added that they were merely trying to make the smokers switch brands.

    In addition, at around the same time there were reports of a more unusual and sinister activity from Majestic City, a large shopping complex in Colombo. Once again they featured attractive women in glamorous clothes, though this time they were not giving out cigarettes, just smoking them. Health advocates are convinced they were paid solely to parade around the shopping centre to demonstrate that attractive, stylish young women now smoke. The smoking women all appeared to be foreigners, and this together with their strikingly attractive appearance ensured that they were well noticed.

    For corporate self promotion, BAT has been appropriating one of the country’s most famous artists, George Keyt (1901 – 1993), once described by a leading Indian art critic as “One of the few giants of the New Asia”. Revered by several generations, his work is to be found, among other places, in temples around the country. What better reputation to exploit, then, for a tobacco company? Not surprisingly, trustees of the George Keyt Foundation include CTC’s chairman and its director of legal affairs. In September the foundation held exhibitions of the work of young artists, part sponsored by CTC, and opened by the country’s enterprise and industry minister. CTC launched a major advertising campaign to publicise the company’s altruism, though not forgetting to use B&H colours. It is thought the ads cost significantly more than the sponsorship itself.

    In the light of all this, it seems very unlikely that Sri Lanka will follow up its early FCTC ratification with effective action. Even if the government tries, BAT has dug itself in well, and can look forward to many more happy trips to the bank with its brimming purse of gold.

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