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We entered the disco at about midnight. Within a minute, a “golden girl” approached me, holding out a box of Benson & Hedges: “Here, take one”. I took it. She extended her hand again, this time holding a small glowing orb—a cigarette lighter, I soon realised. I balked; she encouraged me: “Go ahead—I want to see you smoke it now”. I told her I thought it would make me cough. “No, these are smoother, not so strong” she reassured me. “I want to see you smoke it now.” I put the cigarette in my pocket.
Tamsyn Seimon, notes taken at the Golden Tones Disco, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka, April 1997
Facing an intensifying anti-tobacco climate within the United States and Europe, British American Tobacco (BAT), like other multinational tobacco corporations, has shifted its focus to the vast markets of developing countries. In the small island nation of Sri Lanka, BAT’s subsidiary Ceylon Tobacco Company (CTC) uses discos, music shows, free giveaways, powerboat races, attractive employment packages, and other pointed measures to draw smokers. Exuding the essence of “the good life”—in perverse denial of the prevailing somber mood in Sri Lanka—these lavish campaigns target the country’s most vulnerable groups, preying especially upon the young and a vast, untapped female population.
Situated off the southeastern tip of India, Sri Lanka has done well for a south Asian country. Despite an annual per capita gross national product (GNP) of less than US$750, Sri Lanka exhibits impressive health indicators, more like those of far wealthier nations: very high life expectancy, low infant mortality, and high maleand female literacy. (The 1996 World Bank statistics from the world wide web in June 1998 show the following comparisons. GNP per capita (US$): Sri Lanka, 740; United States, 28 020; India, 380. Life expectancy at birth (years): Sri …
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