In the face of increased taxes, frightening warning photos on packages, bans on advertising, and even bans on displaying cigarettes openly in stores, tobacco profits are under seige. Companies are under pressure to maintain shareholder value — which means upping consumption of their products and enrolling new smokers. With rates of smoking beginning to drop in North America, tobacco companies have begun to turn away in their bid for new smokers here and instead have turned their focus to developing countries. Many of these countries rely on the tobacco industry for jobs, and so are helpless to stop tactics such as advertising on billboards and on television. Indonesia faces tobacco advertising overload, even seeing cartoon characters placed on the packaging to enlist a new generation of smokers.
Tobacco remains a legal product and consumers are as ever free to make their own decisions. However, given the cost to society smoking creates, and the marketing techniques employed by these companies, there is certainly a social responsibility to protect consumers on insidious marketing stragegies aimed at having consumers engage with a harmful product.
The powerful tobacco lobby seems to be making inroads in Britain, where plans to force shopkeepers to keep cigarettes hidden behind the counter may be getting watered down by the new coalition government to the dismay of the nation’s public health bodies. Tobacco lobbyists insist that hiding tobacco products will lead to an increase in smuggling and other illegal activities.
In contrast, New Zealand is planning on introducing a series of extremely tough non-smoking measures, including a ban on shop displays similar to that introduced by Canada several years ago. The overall rate of smoking in Canada has dropped over the last 10 years, to which the ban on displays may have contributed significantly. (Canada, however, seems to have stalled in their commitment to take anti-smoking measures, as indicated by their quiet shelving of an initiative to make warning labels on packages even tougher – have the lobbyists gotten to Parliament Hill?). It remains to be seen what reaction the tobacco lobby will have on the planned New Zealand initiatives. Misinformation campaigns and quiet but poweful subsidies of groups opposed to the bans are already in place.
Given that tobacco remains a legal product, how far can limits on the marketing of these products go? Can a company that claims to be supportive of smoking cessation programs in the West, yet markets their harmful and addictive product directly to children elsewhere in the world, be trusted with anything?
photo credit: thanks to SuperFantastic via flickr