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South Asia: foul play from B&H

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Earlier this year, a massive advertising campaign was launched for Benson & Hedges, made for the local market by the Indian Tobacco Company (ITC), a subsidiary of BAT. Special functions sponsored by B&H were advertised, including many in bars popular with fashionable young people in the city of Mumbai (Bombay), and large B&H billboard advertisements appeared all over the city.

This newspaper ad was part of the Benson & Hedges promotion in India. It describes “Mumbai’s most sought after extravaganza”, promising “Mindblowing fireworks and laser shows . . . BMX stunts, bungee jumping and rappeling [sic] (abseiling).” Entry was “by invitation only”, and entry cards were available from clubs where B&H promotional nights were held: their logos, with relevant dates, are set out across the foot of the ad. The small, faint image just above, to the left, is a health warning.

Young people in teeshirts coloured black and gold (the B&H colours) distributed free packets all over the city, in bars, on college campuses, on the streets, and even in playgrounds such as the Shivaji Park. To any local person, the park is synonymous with cricket, the national game left behind by the British colonial rulers, which has a near-obsessional following in India. Here hopeful young men and boys spend their days practising their game, fantasising, perhaps, about playing on more exalted grounds one day. One youth described how cigarette packs were distributed to all the young people in the park. Newspapers published letters of complaint from health workers, and radio and television presenters added their protest. The climax of the promotion was a high-profile rock concert featuring famous performers.

India is already suffering from several massive BAT promotions, such as Wills sponsoring cricket, and Gold Flake brand sponsoring Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupati, two young tennis stars who are acknowledged role models for young people. “These promotions are blatantly unethical. Companies all over the world are increasingly admitting that tobacco is lethal,” says Dr Prakash Gupta, an experienced researcher on disease caused by tobacco based at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. “They conceal the dangers of smoking and promote a certain lifestyle and image which attracts people in the younger and impressionable age groups,” he added.

According to ITC’s public relations agency, the campaign was not aimed at non-smokers, and was targeted only at 30-year-olds. Questioned by The Times of India, ITC’s local marketing manager declined to comment, pleading that he was not authorised to talk to the press; he directed the reporter to the company’s public relations officer in Calcutta, who in turn suggested the name of another official who was not available for comment.

Recent cigarette advertisements, posing as ads for sponsored cricket and tennis events, from Indian newspapers.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), has also been deluged by B&H. The local medical association reports that models, including some from India, were employed to distribute cigarettes free of charge to young people. On several occasions they were obstructed by tobacco control activists making fun of the promotions. Ceylon Tobacco Company (CTC), BAT’s Sri Lankan subsidiary, was then forced to change its strategy, focusing on private venues such as dances and nightclubs.

On 14 February (the day associated with St Valentine, the patron saint of love), CTC sponsored a dance at a five-star hotel in Colombo, the capital. In the light of previous experience, participants were carefully screened for this event, though several activists still managed to gain access. Inside, B&H cigarettes and alcoholic drinks were distributed free of charge, again by models. Some of the female models distributing cigarettes were described by health activists as obviously “available” and “ready for anything”, and apparently could be freely touched, in stark contrast to prevailing social mores in Sri Lanka. As some participants’ behaviour deteriorated, others left in disgust; one young woman was heard reprimanding her boyfriend for bringing her to “this orgy”.

Interestingly, CTC top management officials were said to be present throughout. But as we know, the people at their party were adults; they never promote cigarettes to the young.

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