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Pakistan Tobacco Company (PTC), local subsidiary of British American Tobacco (BAT), has been engaged in one of the most determined tobacco industry public relations blitzes ever seen in South Asia. Quite why it has mounted it now is unclear, though for some time the government has been making tobacco control noises, and BAT may have woken up to a nasty possibility. While it currently enjoys an almost totally free hand to convey exciting, glamorous messages for its lethal products to young people, things may change as the government considers how to implement the FCTC.
With the theme of “Daring to be different”, newspaper and broadcast ads have covered a range of benefits that the company claims it brings to Pakistan. One placed in December on the front page of all major newspapers claimed that PTC was working for the improvement of Pakistan’s environment, and had planted 30 million trees in the country. Another ad talked of the company’s 30 000 employees and their winning corporate culture. In yet another, PTC claimed that tobacco was essential for the country’s economy, as “the largest taxpayer outside the oil industry” (better than having to say it was, at best, the second largest).
With a fine disregard for logic, and of course no mention of tobacco related health care costs, estimated to hugely outweigh revenue, PTC effectively took credit for the large amounts of tax it collects from its addicted customers and passes on to the finance ministry. It did not put it that way, of course: it showed a chart of increasing tobacco tax revenue in an ad somehow framed to suggest that PTC might be making these payments voluntarily, rather than in response to the laws of the land and the decisions of the government about rates of tobacco duty.
But the most emetic ad of all covered PTC’s sponsorship of a fleet of mobile dispensaries “that reach out to patients in far flung places who need medical attention”. In the background of the newspaper version of this one, a doctor measures the blood pressure of an elderly patient, while in the foreground another doctor listens to the chest of a younger patient, who is lying down with an oxygen mask over his face. It is all too easy to imagine the effect on the blood pressure of the doctors who lead Pakistan’s tobacco control movement, whose clinics are packed every day with real patients like these, suffering life threatening diseases solely as a result of their smoking.
As in all the ads, the copy under the mobile dispensary picture ended, “PTC dared to dream, and has dared to achieve”. It is true, of course: PTC/BAT has dared to be different, and has dared to dream that it could fend off the inevitable curbs on its activities as the majority seller of the country’s leading cause of preventable death and disease. It has dared to spend a vast amount of its shareholders’ money trying to portray itself as a benign rather than malignant presence in the country, and to try to make credulous politicians and other decision makers believe in its dreamland. In reality, it is at the centre of an epidemic nightmare from which the country urgently needs to awake.