Winter 2005    Vol. 13, Issue 2


Anti-Tobacco Efforts Are No Match for Tobacco-Company Maneuvers in India


Anti-tobacco campaigns aren’t cutting through the smoke in India. Even as Bollywood movie king Shahrukh Khan announced that he was quitting smoking for his 40th birthday, a recent survey by the Burning Brain Society, an anti-tobacco civil society organization based in Chandigarh, India, revealed that more than 89 percent of respondents were unaware of the country’s anti-tobacco laws, and 73 percent were ignorant about the rights of non-smokers. (See chart.) Conversely, almost all of the respondents could recall more than one brand of tobacco product and some form of tobacco advertisement.

This is reason to worry especially because tobacco companies continue to promote their products relentlessly in India despite ratification of landmark anti-tobacco treaties such as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and the 2003 Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA). In fact, these behemoths are pursuing innovative means of surrogate advertisement, publicity, product placement and point-of-purchase (POP) displays, including eye-catching arrangements in super stores, grocery shops, restaurants, toy stores and stationery outlets.

Civil Response is Slow
Why is civil society so sluggish to respond while the tobacco companies force identified poison down the throat of the new generation?

Among the multiple reasons, one is most certainly financial. The total budget of anti-tobacco campaigns is just a fraction of the marketing resources of the tobacco industry. In India, the total spending by government and non-governmental agencies on anti-tobacco activities is less than 5 percent of the total spent by the tobacco companies on advertisement (which post-FCTC and -COTPA means POP and counter displays, product placement in mass media and product/brand visibility through surrogate means). Big Tobacco’s corporate spent also includes bribing officials and other people, both directly and indirectly.

So why is the government not pitching in at a higher level? The answer is complex: corruption in government; the vested interest of certain key officials at the decision-making levels; the trivialization of the tobacco issue vis-à-vis other health problems and its ensuing non-priority status; and the acceptance of tobacco consumption as a part of Indian social behavior.

Another reason for tempered civil response has to do with poor planning regarding the money spent on anti-tobacco activities. When resources are limited, a higher level of cohesiveness is imperative, but this is missing in India. While a couple of agencies and the Indian government do work jointly, overall, there is no tracking of the money spent on anti-tobacco initiatives. In addition, most of the financial resources are confined to urban areas, where it is convenient for civil society organizations (CSOs) to operate – despite the fact that more than 75 percent of Indians live in villages, where tobacco use and abuse are most acute thanks to few existing or planned information, education and communication (IEC) tools and a host of savvy tobacco companies that have successfully infiltrated these rural areas via innovative means.

Marketing Maneuvers Work
Unfortunately, tobacco companies seem to understand the Indian psyche better than their civil counterparts. In doing so, they have unleashed innovative marketing ploys, like greeting cards bearing their cigarette logos, to capture attention – and to associate their brands with pleasant moments. In addition to cards, tobacco company ITC is also marketing biscuits, candies and snacks bearing its logo, a practice that is becoming popular with other brands. Sadly, these marketing initiatives are supported by a strong rural network; they also have the involvement and support of various state governments and high-ranking officials

Known for product placement around the world, Philip Morris is now positioning its popular Marlboro brand in Hindi movies. These movies are watched in rural and urban areas alike, and Bollywood stars like Shahrukh Khan, and their movie characters and actions, have significant influence over youngsters nationwide. Meanwhile, Godfrey Phillips India Ltd. associates its tobacco brand with bravery, giving out awards for courage. Because of Burning Brain Society efforts, the company dropped the logo and name of its cigarette from the awards, but then renamed them the Godfrey Phillips Bravery Awards – a smooth move, since they are now promoting their company name as the mother brand for their entire range of tobacco products.

A Global Problem Exists
India is hardly the poster child for the anti-tobacco movement. Then again, the commitment level of many developed nations is lagging. Take the United States, for example. “Dedicated” to fighting the ravages of tobacco, America is the origination point for most of the world’s tobacco advertisements, and the majority of the print magazines it publishes and exports still carry full-page tobacco advertisements. In addition, a sizeable number of Hollywood movies prominently display various tobacco brands, and the open affiliation of U.S. producers and tobacco companies is well-known. The kind of influence U.S. print material and movies have on young people across the globe is indisputable. Yet, America drags its feet – signing the FCTC, but doing nothing to ratify it. Is this mighty nation also bowing to the pressure of revenue-generating tobacco companies at the cost of its own populace and other developed nations?

National Inertia is a Barrier
What is the India government doing? Not much – mostly sitting on its laurels, thinking that it has done its duty by enacting COTPA (and ratifying the FCTC). But COPTA is being implemented in non-priority areas, and it is far too lenient and full of loopholes.

Why such glaring gaps exist is a matter of deliberation. And even if the current union minister for health, and officials in the central government and associated organizations were serious about addressing the fissures, they would still have to counter the abysmal lack of anti-tobacco enforcement by state governments.

All the money spent on education and other IEC activities is wasted when such initiatives are not supported by the responsible agencies on the legal front. Inaction and inefficiency also trivialize the role of CSOs, which are then seen as petty noisemakers out to make a quick buck.

A Solution Can be Found
What can civil society members do? First, they need to engage in more active planning and coordination so that they are able to take on the tactics of the tobacco companies and the limitations of the laws more specifically and emphatically. Additionally, all CSOs should:

  • Stop the policy of appeasing the government and its non-serious officials. A head-on approach is the call of the day; soft peddling will not produce results.
  • Take direct action. Use the independent judiciary more often and ensure that erring officials are punished without fail.
  • Focus more on preventing the younger generation from getting into the tobacco trap rather than on spending limited time, energy and resources on tobacco-cessation efforts.
  • Generate a higher level of public opinion against political functionaries who do not support anti-tobacco efforts, and let this judgment be openly known.
  • Support the move to license all tobacco shops so that more control can be exercised over the spread of tobacco and tobacco products.
  • Conserve resources by increasing the level of transparency in functioning and by emphasizing greater coordination amongst organizations.

These are just a few of a long list of urgent requirements. But with the right strategy at the right level, much can be achieved at a faster pace than is happening today. Post-FCTC, India is primed for such initiative. Anti-tobacco organizations across the world have already covered more than 90 percent of the distance; it is the last 10 percent that now requires our energy and efforts. Come; let’s cover it post-haste.

For details on the Burning Brain Society and its successes in the fight against tobacco, visit the society’s website at

Center for Communications, Health and the Environment
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