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India: promoting tobacco via “research”
  1. Hemant Goswami
  1. Burning Brain Society, Chandigarh, India; info{at}

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    Philip Morris’ subsidiary in India, Godfrey Phillips India Ltd (GPI), has recently been using “research” to cloak illicit cigarette promotions inside one of India’s premier educational institutions, Punjab University (PU) at Chandigarh.

    Since December 2004, India has banned the sale of tobacco products within a radius of 100 yards (91.4 m) of all educational institutions. In April 2006 GPI reached inside PU with a team of young people, each paid 1000 rupees (US$22) per day—about five times a typical wage for sales promotion work—to conduct what they described as “research”. The item being researched was Red & White Mild cigarettes.

    “Researchers” found at PU were confronted and asked about their research objectives. They produced a form for collecting details from those they engaged in conversation or those whom they provided with a sample cigarette or a pack. The promotions proceed like this: tobacco retailers are offered 1000 rupees and free cigarette packs. Posters are put up and the shop and the nearby surroundings decorated with dangling point-of-sale advertisements for Red & White cigarettes. Large, attractive display-boards showing cigarettes and pictures of gifts being offered are also set up. The promoted cigarette brand is made available in the shop and gifts promised on purchase of the brand are displayed on a mannequin dummy. Attractive young, uniformed members of the sales team roam around smiling and greeting all in the vicinity.

    The moment they find any young person showing the slightest interest, they are immediately engaged in conversation about the launch of a new brand, emphasising that this is a milder version of the cigarette. Brochures explaining a prize scheme involving winnings such as mobile phones and other attractive gifts are produced. Free cigarettes are then offered. The next step is to try to make a sale which includes a free number-coded card inside the cigarette pack. We observed sales in about half such encounters.

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    “Researchers” from Philip Morris’ subsidiary in India illicitly conduct cigarette promotions inside one of the country’s premier educational institutions, Punjab University. Note the mannequin dummy (right) displaying gifts available on purchase of the brand under promotion.

    The “researcher” collects personal details even when a sale is not made. Each person is told that they will be invited to frequent smokers’ parties in which their selected friends will be welcome, provided they participate in the research. Once the pack is purchased, the GPI promoters guide the person to open the pack and locate the card insert. Purchasers are then instructed to send an SMS (text message from their mobile telephones) to the number printed on the card, ensuring that purchasers’ mobile numbers are recorded in the GPI data bank.

    Within minutes, the person gets a return call thanking them for purchasing the cigarette pack and congratulating them on winning a gift. Personal details including postal address are collected after the winners are told that their gifts will be couriered within two weeks to the address just provided, naturally also entered into a marketing database.

    During the following week, those recruited this way get many SMS messages, with messages such as, “Thanks for taking part in Red & White Milds taste of adventure offer – keep on participating as you enjoy the great taste of Red & White Milds.” These keep coming for weeks. (For a pack purchased on 20 April, we were still getting messages nearly a month later.)

    The moment we discovered this activity, we made a formal complaint to the government and the police. When nothing resulted, we went to the press and increased the pressure during the next four days through other tactics. GPI officials flew to Chandigarh and declared in a press conference that they would sue us for libel. A month later, we were still waiting. After two more days of inaction from the police we physically detained a person promoting cigarettes in a market until the police were left with no other option than to take action, confiscate all advertising material and register a complaint. The marketing activity stopped the next day, but the police still had not proceeded with a prosecution six weeks later. We continued to fight for it.

    The Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003 clearly states that promoting or advertising tobacco products by direct or indirect means is an offence attracting up to five years of imprisonment. It seems that GPI must be confident that little if any action will be taken against it if it disguises blatant sales promotion as market “research”.

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