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As more countries sign and ratify the FCTC, giving the structure for ending all forms of promotion, naturally people are asking how it will really affect the tobacco companies. Does the fairly unconcerned image they project mean they have worked out sufficient ways of getting round the national bans that should ensue to keep pushing their products, especially to the young, or have they done deals with some countries to get bans with built-in loopholes? Perhaps, as usual, they will simply try any and every avenue they can think of. In the last few years, after all, we have seen a spate of new techniques being tried, including exclusive invitation only parties and nightclub websites aimed at trend setting young people, and the increasing use of carefully built up mailing lists. Another practice that has intensified recently is brand extension, using colours, images, and other associations that are not necessarily a logical development of the original brand, but which can reach a new sector of the market. With around 90% of smokers starting to smoke before they are out of their teens in many countries, it is not surprising that the youth market is the usual target.
In the USA, for example, Brown & Williamson Tobacco (B&W), the US subsidiary of BAT, has introduced a flavoured extension of its menthol brand Kool. Called the Smooth Fusions range, flavours include Caribbean Chill, Mocha Taboo, Mintrigue, and Midnight Berry. Take Midnight Berry, which at first hearing might be mistaken for some sort of grim drugs underworld slang, perhaps for the sort of dark and slimy blood clot that a terminally ill tobacco junkie might cough up in the delirious, hacking depths of the last night of this mortal life. In reality, it is a new brand in a highly coloured pack with an unusual design: it has rounded corners and opens out like some of the personal digital assistant (PDA) gadgets that many get-ahead young people carry nowadays. Opened out, it holds 13 cigarettes on one side and seven on the other. What health campaigners are most concerned about, in addition to this new level of absurd glamourisation of an addictive and lethal product, is that the cigarettes’ strong fruit flavour may mask the retch inducing effects of inhalation among first time smokers, especially young ones.
B&W says 45% of Kool smokers are African American and 8% Hispanic, and the Fusions range will be targeted at hip, trend setting smokers, more heavily skewed to the Hispanic population, in bars and nightclub venues, with print ads appearing in publications such as Playboy and Vanity Fair. A B&W executive called Mr Cremers, appropriately (see below), was quoted as saying that the response from consumers was that “This is a pack to be seen with”. That sums up much of what underlies health officials’ objections, and conversely, is no doubt why RJ Reynolds, which is in line for acquisition by B&W soon, has been trying similar brand extensions. The latest range, Camel Exotic Blends, has Crema, apparently tasting like cream; Izmir Stinger, like a cocktail of brandy and crème de menthe; Dark Mint, chocolate and mint; and Mandarin Mint and Twist, both citrus flavoured. It had already launched Camel Turkish Jade in 2001, with Mandarin Mint, Creamy Mellow Mint, Light and regular Mellow Menthol blends.
In Brazil, BAT has been even bolder with a new extension of its Carlton brand. Souza Cruz, its local subsidiary, has launched Carlton Crema and Carlton Mint, both with flavours, striking new packaging, and a printed insert. The insert seems designed to flatter smokers who would like to be considered sophisticated, with notes on the origins of the world “mint”, for example, and the history of vanilla for Crema. They make ample use of words such as “refreshing”, “perfume”, “sweet”, and “smooth”. Each insert ends with the slogan, “Carlton, a rare pleasure”. The packs also have a semi-clear plastic cover on the outside: on Carlton Mint, it is green with a mint leaf, while Crema’s is cream coloured with a coffee and cream image print. These wrappings also carry the government health warning images—not necessarily the same as the photograph on the actual pack, but frequently one with less impact. For example, in one case, the image on the pack reflected a person being resuscitated from a heart attack, but that on the plastic wrap showed a couple with problems caused by the smoking man’s bad breath, an image the government has decided to replace because evaluation has shown it to be ineffective.
Public health authorities in Brazil, the region’s leader in tobacco control, view the inserts as advertisements circumventing Brazil’s legislation, which only permits printed tobacco ads in the internal area of points of sale. It is to be hoped that if they are right, a case is taken to court. Its outcome might help seal off one way tobacco companies may think they can get round laws that in due course should be spawned worldwide by the FCTC.