Saturday, May 11, 2013

Why tobacco companies target your teenage child and why an advertising ban is an imperative for Uganda

When I was growing up as a child in the 1980s and the 1990s, the back pages of TIME and Newsweek magazines were almost always adorned with a surreal image of a trim, middle-aged white man. He was often riding on horse back with a cowboy hat as he puffed away on a cigarette, often in rugged terrain. He was known as the ‘Marlboro man’. We all wanted to be like the Marlboro man. He was cool, macho and assured. I remember plastering some of my adolescent walls with the pictures of the cool ‘Marlboro man’. It was only much later that I realized that the ‘Marlboro man’ was actually a deceptive tobacco advert aimed at getting me to buy cigarettes- an easy prey to ‘Big tobacco’s sophisticated advertising machine. But the adverts worked. They made smoking appear cool and alluring to an impressionable teenager like me at the time. And that’s the trouble with tobacco advertising, it is an ‘everyone is invited’ sport. Teenagers and young smokers are however, by far, the most sought after demographic. Tobacco advertising is about making money. Before the ‘Marlboro man’ was conceived in the US in 1955, tobacco sales were $ 5 million. In 1957, when the ‘Marlboro man’ was introduced, tobacco sales were up $ 20 million. Imagine you were launching a new soda or beer product in which and you had invested millions. Advertising and promotions are vehicles you can’t ignore. The trouble is that tobacco products are not like any other commercial product. ‘’When used exactly as intended by the manufacturer, tobacco products kill half of all their users’’ says Dr Sheila Ndyanabangi, the tobacco control focal person in the Ministry of Health. Ironically, Wayne McLaren who portrayed ‘the Marlboro man’ in print and television did eventually succumb to lung cancer in real life, on 22nd July 1992 at the age of 51. The World commemorates World No Tobacco day this month and WHO has selected this year’s theme as the ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. Tobacco advertising has been defined as ‘any commercial effort to promote tobacco consumption, including the display of trade marks, brand names and manufacturer logos, marketing of tobacco products and other methods’. On 24th June 2007, Uganda signed a global agenda to, among other things, institute a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising under a treaty called the Framework Convention Alliance (FCTC) which has force of international law in 186 countries, including Uganda. ’’In the last few months we have seen unprecedented tobacco industry advertising in Uganda. It would seem this advertising is regulation-free. Companies have announced cigarette price increase in glossy full page adverts’’ says John Amanya of Uganda National Tobacco Control Association (UNTCA) ‘The tobacco industry in Uganda continues to advertise, promote and sponsor activities aimed at increasing demand for tobacco products in contravention of the ministerial directive of 1995 with no known regulatory regime to bring them to account. There have been some gains registered as tobacco advertising is less explicit than it was in years past, for instance, there are virtually no billboards advertising tobacco products. Point of sale (POS) violations do however stand out prominently’ reads the Tobacco Control Shadow report compiled by UNTCA which will be launched on 31st May 2013. The report was compiled from field research conducted in Kampala, Mbarara and Gulu to represent strategic regions of Uganda between June and August 2012. The shadow report also reveals that tobacco advertising ban violations are more rife among non-mainstream tobacco companies. The violations become more pronounced in the outskirts of towns. Tobacco advertising is especially targeted towards young people because of the opportunity of recruiting life-long clients enticed through ads that associate smoking with glamour and aroused curiosity in experimenting with things new. Unsurprisingly, scientific evidence shows that children and young people are more receptive to tobacco advertising than adults and that adolescents exposed to advertising are more likely to smoke which is why the most sought after demographic is teens and young smokers. Action on Smoking and Health’s website reveals that studies commissioned by the UK government show that ‘The balance of evidence supports the conclusion that advertising does have a positive impact on consumption” (i.e. it increases consumption). The same review also found that in countries that had banned tobacco advertising the ban “was followed by a fall in smoking on a scale which cannot reasonably be attributed to other factors’. The tobacco industry continues to find innovative ways of side-stepping the restrictions on advertising through non-traditional avenues including’ brand-stretching’ on such items as matches, lighters and key holders in the shape of cigarettes or the use of brand logos without reflecting a company name. ’’Tobacco companies in Uganda circumvent the ban on advertising through setting up events for product launches for new cigarette brands or open and blatant promotional events at recreational places such as night clubs specifically targeting teenagers and adolescents. We have also observed that tobacco companies have become increasingly reliant on displays at the point of sale to draw attention to their products and stimulate sales.’’ says John Amanya of UNTCA. Although tobacco advertising was banned in Kenya in 2007, in South Africa in 1999, the 2012 Tobacco Atlas lists Uganda among countries with a ‘complete absence of a ban on tobacco advertising’. The Uganda tobacco control bill (2012) proposes to ban tobacco companies from conducting free product giveaways, undertaking brand-stretching marketing to other products, or sponsoring events or individuals: all methods by which the tobacco industry seeks to attract new smokers. Point-of-sale displays will also be banned, which will further limit the potential for tobacco advertising. ‘’This is really about an industry that survives, and profits, from selling a highly addictive product which causes diseases that lead to a staggering number of deaths per year, an immeasurable amount of human suffering and economic loss, and a profound burden on our national health care system’ said Judge Gladys Kessler in a US court ruling in August 2006.

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