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Tobacco industry co-optation of culture? Converging culturally specific and mainstream tobacco products in India
  1. Arnab Mukherjea
  1. Correspondence to Dr Arnab Mukherjea, Postdoctoral Scholar, Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, Department of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, 530 Parnassus Avenue, Suite 366, San Francisco, CA 94143-1390, USA; arnab.mukherjea{at}

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Snus is a moist tobacco product containing finely chopped tobacco in a tea bag-like pouch, which is placed under the lip for consumption.1 Snus proponents claim that it is a less harmful option than smoking cigarettes and is lower in carcinogens than traditional smokeless tobacco products.1 2 However, concerns have been raised about the addictive potential of snus and the potential for increasing dual use of smoked and smokeless products. Snus has been heavily marketed in its native Sweden, as well as Norway, Canada and the USA.2 However, other than test marketing in Japan, the popularity and marketing of snus seems to be largely absent in Asia.

In South Asia specifically, smokeless tobacco is widely used in chewable betel quids, commercial mixtures of lime and spices, and powdered applications to teeth and gums.3 The use of these products and their variants are an integral part of cultural customs and lack social stigma among South Asians inside and outside the Indian subcontinent.4 5

Recent targeted tobacco advertising may reveal a shift in strategy to co-opt ethnic symbols to target Asian Indians globally or a broad range of potential users outside this cultural group. For example, one advertisement co-opts an image of the Taj Mahal and a native term for a culturally specific product (khaini) to advertise tobacco reflecting a ‘taste of India’ (figure 1). This product—Chaini Khaini—is not actually khaini, which is a combination of powdered tobacco, slaked lime and areca nut.6 Rather, this specific version is refined tobacco encased in a porous pouch and is labelled as ‘snus’ (figure 2). In fact, the Chaini Khaini website claims the ‘medically proven fact’ that ‘India's first filter snus’ is a ‘much less harmful product than smoking’ and the porous pouch ‘does not allow tobacco leaves to come in contact with oral organs’ nor be ‘ingested in the gastro-intestinal tract’, extolling its use to avoid tobacco-related harm to oral cavities, teeth and intestines.7 The product highlights the use of European technology in manufacturing and maintains its Indian authenticity by emphasising the use of native tobacco and indigenous flavours such as saffron, cardamom and mango. A cursory investigation found these claims of enhanced safety, as well as the benefit of use without public notice, to be apparent among other culturally specific products in India.8 Much of this messaging parallels assertions made in mainstream marketing of snus.9

Figure 1

Chaini Khaini ad using Indian imagery and culturally specific tobacco terminology to market snus.

Figure 2

Enlarged image of Chaini Khaini encasing confirming it as snus.

Interestingly, Chaini Khaini also uses packaging and flavouring that might have broad attraction to youth, including mint, green apple and lemon (figure 3). Given the social acceptability of culturally specific tobacco use among Indian children, these additional options may further increase youth tobacco initiation.

Figure 3

Internet ad for Chaini Khaini illustrating packaging in youth-appealing fashion as well as the use of Indian spices and flavouring.

Co-optation of cultural attributes may be a new avenue for multinational tobacco companies to enter largely untapped markets. For India specifically, hybridisation of emerging products, which capitalise on the cultural value of indigenous tobacco, is a potential concern worthy of monitoring. Tobacco control advocates must be vigilant to ensure that these strategies are adequately countered.


The author would like to thank Pamela Ling, MD, MPH, for her mentorship and encouragement to ensure that this AdWatch was disseminated to tobacco control advocates through publication.


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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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