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China: rave paves way to grave

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A sinister new development in tobacco promotion is the “rave”, or large-scale, disco-style dance, complete with massive sound amplification, video screens, professional dancing on stage, and any number of other stimuli. Raves are not for the old, which in this case rules out anyone much over their mid-twenties; but conversely, it means that a sizeable proportion of rave-goers are unlikely to be out of their teens. A better vehicle for reaching potential smokers is hard to imagine, especially as the rave scene can associate cigarette brands with glamour, excitement, alcohol, pursuit of the opposite sex, and the latest in music and dance.

Until recently, raves were to be found only in industrialised countries, where young people have a comparatively large disposable income and the social freedom to attend what are often all-night events. But mass communications have ensured that raves in “the West”, complete with the glamour of their illicit-tinged pleasures and excitement, spread to the burgeoning youth populations of the developing—and newly industrialised—world. This has presented an irresistible opportunity to tobacco companies and those music industry entrepreneurs from the West who can turn a blind eye to the deliberate association of cigarettes with something highly attractive to young people in mouth-wateringly large new markets.

So it was towards the end of last year that China saw the first of what threatens to be an ongoing pattern of raves, in the southern city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. Originally, attempts were made to hold raves in China’s up and coming dance capitals, Beijing and Shanghai, but to their credit officials in both cities were unwilling to allow cigarette promotion so blatantly aimed at the youth market. BAT displayed its “555” logo prominently on video screens and elsewhere at the Shenzhen rave, in addition to the usual teeshirts, caps, and compact disc samplers, and the teams of young women offering free cigarettes on trays.

The United Kingdom’s “Ministry of Sound”, a company that runs a successful nightclub in London and tours with disc jockeys seemingly anywhere in the world where there’s money to be made, had received about US$640 000 from BAT for arranging a tour taking in major raves in Shenzhen, Guanzhou (formerly Canton), and Taipei (Taiwan), as well as smaller events in Kaoshiung and Taichung. At the time of the Shenzhen rave, the company was planning similar raves in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, for which it hoped to get BAT’s sponsorship, and had already organised one with Rothmans money in Nigeria. A Hong Kong newspaper reported an unrepentant Ministry employee as saying: “We’re not promoting drugs . . .” and “What [BAT] got out of it was a mail-out clientele and to tap into the younger audience.” Quite so.

As it happens, the Shenzhen nightclub, ironically a former cultural hall for soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, had been raided not long before the rave, and large quantities of the illegal drug, ecstasy, had reportedly been seized there. But when was the association with illicit drugs ever a problem for tobacco promotion?