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Asia: choppy seas for BAT butt boat

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British American Tobacco's John Player Gold Leaf, the only known sailing boat to advertise two cigarette brands at the same time, sailed into a storm of controversy last September as it approached Sri Lanka. Billed as undertaking the “Voyage of discovery”, the 80 foot racing yacht had left Tower Bridge in London, UK, in mid June with a seven person British crew. BAT's press hype, faithfully reported by most newspapers in Bangladesh (but notBhorer Kagoj—seeTobacco Control1998;7:228–9), boasted that the “challenging and exciting” 170 day trip would cover 17 countries and three continents, with the ultimate destination being the Bangladesh port of Chittagong in the Bay of Bengal, scheduled for November. BAT augmented the coverage with large colour advertisements in the newspapers covering the story. So all seemed set fair for a straightforward cruise (the boat was not, after all, racing against competitors) to promote cigarettes to some of the company's prime developing markets.

Advertisement appearing in a Bangladesh newspaper promoting BAT's “Voyage of discovery” by the racing yacht John Player Gold Leaf—the only known sailing boat to advertise two cigarette brands at the same time.

However, the organisers omitted to take a forecast of the climate of public opinion along the route. Clearly, many people were appalled at the trip's association with the largest known cause of respiratory illness, cancer, and heart disease, none of which mix well with the rigours of intercontinental sailing. In October, as the boat was nearing the southern Sri Lankan port of Galle, widespread protests were organised by local health groups. When the boat failed to enter port as expected, no official explanation was forthcoming, but reading between the lines of statements from Galle harbour police, local health advocates concluded that the boat's plans for a Sri Lankan layover had either been changed or cancelled as a result of the protests.

One can understand the reluctance of the hapless skipper. In addition to earlier posters branding the voyage an invasion designed to recruit the nation's youth, a new message had appeared asking the government to arrest the “merchants of death”, and for the vessel to be impounded or chased away from Sri Lanka's shores. Anti-tobacco banners were reportedly displayed at almost all police stations and schools, and at many road junctions in the city. Picketing and demonstrations took place at schools until the police chief of the province took the precaution of stopping them, in case any got out of control. Meanwhile a float in the form of a ship, decorated with skeletons and satirical anti-tobacco slogans, toured the city and visited schools.

Twenty years ago, the majority of cigarette promotion by transnational tobacco companies in developing countries was in the form of regular advertisements on billboards and in newspapers and magazines. The ads were relatively simple in design, and typically for cheap, local brands. Nowadays, tobacco promotion has become much more homogenised all over the world, with a large proportion being via sponsorship and brand stretching, and regular advertising has become more sophisticated. And exploiting the ever increasing reach and audience of transnational media, especially via television, the companies are tending to concentrate on international brands, using sponsorship and other internationally coordinated promotional techniques. BAT's “Voyage of discovery” illustrates these changes, which pose an increasing challenge for national governments and the international health community.

But the Sri Lanka episode illustrates something else, too, which gives cause for optimism. BAT cannot have foreseen the difficulties encountered in Galle. Even if its marketing executives had considered the possibility, they would no doubt have brushed it aside with the usual arrogant industry talk about there still being a decade or so of “an open playing field”—in other words, no serious resistance from the health side. It is heartening to see that the supplies required by health in the war against tobacco—information about the epidemic, and the skills for using it—are now being efficiently distributed in developing countries, and people are coming out to fight.


  • All articles written by David Simpson unless otherwise attributed. Ideas and items for News Analysis should be sent to David Simpson at the address given on the inside front cover.