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Transnational tobacco industry promotion of the cigarette gifting custom in China


Objective To understand how British American Tobacco (BAT) and Philip Morris (PM) researched the role and popularity of cigarette gifting in forming relationships among Chinese customs and how they exploited the practice to promote their brands State Express 555 and Marlboro.

Methods Searches and analysis of industry documents from the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library complemented by searches on LexisNexis Academic news, online search engines and information from the tobacco industry trade press.

Results From 1980–1999, BAT and PM employed Chinese market research firms to gather consumer information about perceptions of foreign cigarettes and the companies discovered that cigarettes, especially prestigious ones, were gifted and smoked purposely for building relationships and social status in China. BAT and PM promoted their brands as gifts by enhancing cigarette cartons and promoting culturally themed packages, particularly during the gifting festivals of Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival to tie their brands in to festival values such as warmth, friendship and celebration. They used similar marketing in Chinese communities outside China.

Conclusions BAT and PM tied their brands to Chinese cigarette gifting customs by appealing to social and cultural values of respect and personal honour. Decoupling cigarettes from their social significance in China and removing their appeal would probably reduce cigarette gifting and promote a decline in smoking. Tobacco control efforts in countermarketing, large graphic warnings and plain packaging to make cigarette packages less attractive as gifts could contribute to denormalising cigarette gifting.

  • Songyan
  • Chinese New year
  • Mid-Autumn festival
  • British American Tobacco
  • Philip Morris
  • advertising and promotion
  • packaging and labelling
  • public policy
  • qualitative study

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