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In our last issue, we reported the good news that Godfrey Philips, Indian subsidiary of Philip Morris, had decided to abandon the bravery awards scheme it had used so successfully for many years to promote its Red & White cigarette brand (see Tobacco Control 2005;14:297). However, it has already become apparent that the company sees far too much benefit from the scheme to give it up altogether.
In its heyday, the Red & White Bravery Awards let Godfrey Philips to run massive advertising and public relations campaigns around India, soliciting nominations for various categories of personal bravery. Apart from associating the name, colours and logo of Red & White cigarettes with laudable human qualities and roping in opinion leaders to hand over the awards, the presentation ceremonies allowed the company to schmooze up to the good and the great. State government ministers and senior civil servants always found time to attend, even though they may have been seriously behind with such tasks as, say, implementing tobacco control regulations already passed by parliament, but requiring some slight bureaucratic action to become effective.
For the cigarette makers, losing the brand name was only a partial defeat: by changing the name of the scheme to the Godfrey Philips Awards, they could still run the gravy train for the influential people they need to cultivate for the sake of their commercial future. So it was that late one night in October, the Burning Brain Society, the non-governmental organisation whose legal case led to the banning of the brand name for the awards, learned that the scheme was going ahead again, with the name of the company in place of the brand, in their own state, Haryana. It was to take place the very next evening in the prestigious Taj Hotel in the state capital, Chandigarh. Even the awardees themselves, as well as journalists the company hoped would cover the event, were only informed one day in advance.
The society immediately fired off urgent pleas to everyone from the state governor and first and deputy first ministers of the state government, to the police and the hotel, and even to the president of India. Setting out a formidable list of well argued reasons why the event contravened the provisions of tobacco promotion law, and the interpretations of the court, they urged the recipients to cancel or at least boycott the event. While no immediate response was received from politicians or officials, and the event went ahead as planned, the disappointment of those concerned with health must be set in context.
It may not seem like it now, but the latest saga from Chandigarh almost certainly signals the death throes of a particularly cynical and inappropriate form of tobacco promotion. After all, what had once been an open, public show of glory proclaimed by a wealth of advertising and press coverage before, during and after the awards ceremony, has rapidly shrunk to a covert affair whose very existence was kept secret until the last moment.
This sort of trend has been seen in other countries, such as Australia, where social acceptability as well as laws forced changes once thought impossible. Tobacco companies that once flaunted the glorious garb of corporate munificence, have sunk to quick and furtive grabs at the hem of decision-makers’ raiment, in situations reminiscent of the speak-easy. If pressure on politicians is maintained, it may be increasingly difficult to recruit worthwhile guests of honour. And with secrecy paramount, the company’s accountants may be the ones to take the bravest, if inevitable decision.