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Swedish Match used not to feature much in international tobacco control discussions—it supplied the Swedish market with its oral tobacco (snus) products, and that, it seemed, was only a matter of concern for Swedish colleagues. But in recent years, as cigarette manufacturers have been hurling themselves ever more forcefully into the great scramble for the developing world, Swedish Match has been going international too. For example, realising that India was the world’s largest oral tobacco market, it launched its Click brand there (see Gupta PC. India: Swedish Match steps in. Tobacco Control 2001;10:307). Recently, it has been seen in action, and controversy, in several more overseas markets.
When British American Tobacco (BAT) caused a stir earlier this year by announcing it was launching an oral tobacco product in South Africa, few outside the country realised there was much of a snuff market there. In fact, it has been around for some time, and Swedish Match became the second largest producer in 1999, when it acquired a local manufacturer. Its Taxi brand is the country’s top seller, and Swedish Match also markets a brand called Tobaccorette. Many feel the name is uncomfortably close to the smoking cessation product Nicorette, a nicotine containing chewing gum. South Africa has a total ban on tobacco promotion, and it seems Tobaccorette was introduced into parts of the country through “viral” marketing. Produced in Zimbabwe, it does not carry the warning label “Causes Cancer” as required by law for smokeless tobacco products.
As public health workers around the world continue to debate harm reduction policies, including the place within them of oral tobacco, South Africa may be about to see whether a significant new body of South African cigarette smokers replaces some or all of their smoking with snus. They will also be watching to see how BAT markets the product and whether it tries to make health claims about it. Last year, scientists at the University of Pretoria confronted Swedish Match about health claims on a website advertisement that implied that Tobaccorette had no health hazards. The company later shut down the site, claiming it had not approved of the ad.
It appears that Swedish Match may be somewhat out of touch with what is done to promote its products around the world. Earlier this year, health advocates in Scotland, where tobacco control laws may soon be significantly stronger than in other parts of the UK after its devolved parliament votes on a workplace smoking ban, were alerted by ASH Scotland to yet another insidious tobacco related campaign aimed at university students. Free samples of “Styx”, a kit containing hand rolling cigarette papers and filters, were being handed out in the student bar in Edinburgh. It is not known how many university students or staff, apart from the small minority involved in classical studies, would appreciate the irony of the name: in ancient Greek mythology, the Styx was the river that had to be crossed by the dead, to the realm of Hades, the underworld at the other side.
The Styx boxes distributed to students contained a reference to a website (http://www.styxpapers.com) clearly aimed at a youth audience, but with no manufacturer details. The website included details of recruitment opportunities last December, for students to give out free samples. But the promotion was not limited to cyberspace—eye catching Smart cars, highly popular among young people, and conspicuously decorated with the Styx name and logo, were being driven and parked in areas frequented by students. Even the most basic Smart car retails for around £6800 (US$12 500) in the UK, some 31 000 times the price of a pack of Styx papers.
Research showed that the Styxpapers website was registered to Swedish Match UK Limited. During 2004, it recruited students to participate in a competition by distributing packets of cigarette rolling paper in their spare time. Applicants were promised training in sales techniques, a Smart car, and a competitive salary. “So sticky, it’s criminal” was one of the slogans, apparently trying to mimic teenage slang. Swedish Match was not mentioned; in fact, Styx is not made by the company, but is being sold, together with filter tips, on a trial basis in the UK. The packaging, in different colours, resembles chewing gum packs.
Challenged on its home ground by Swedish health advocates, Swedish Match said it had not been aware of the website: its overseas operations are decentralised with each division having a high degree of independence. However, websites must be approved by central management, which had not happened in this case. The company agreed that the UK website was inappropriate, and promised to discuss it with the UK division, who would probably shut it down. Since then, the site has consisted solely of the familiar announcement that it is under construction.
In a recent survey by GES Investment Services in Stockholm, Swedish Match ranked low in comparison with 12 other leading international tobacco companies on the question of how well its policies comply with the prohibitions on marketing and sales to minors contained in the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Perhaps it is just less organised, and less crafty about trying to wear the “corporate social responsibility” cloak. Or perhaps the Styx campaign merely demonstrates the apparently incurable addiction of tobacco marketing executives to trying to catch yet another generation of young people.