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24-08-12-wr-smokingThe World No Tobacco Day (WNTD) is observed all over the world on 31 May each year.  This year the theme of the Day is: “Ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.”  The theme is particularly relevant in the context of Bangladesh following the recent passage of the amendment to the tobacco control law.
Bangladesh was the first signatory to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) adopted in 2003 and was among the earliest countries to ratify the Convention. Thus, it was an obligation on the part of Bangladesh to enact tobacco control law in line with FCTC which the country tried to do by passing a law in 2005.

However, the ‘Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) Act 2005’ had a number of loopholes that made it quite ineffective in playing any significant role in controlling tobacco in Bangladesh.  That is why, the tobacco control activists had been demanding amendment of the law and the government had to respond to the demand.  Although the amendment did not satisfy the activists fully, it was a significant step forward as it included a number of strong tobacco control measures.

Each year tobacco kills six million people worldwide and the death toll is likely to reach eight million a year if the current trend continues.  In Bangladesh, at least 57 thousand people die each year from eight leading tobacco related diseases.  In addition, 382 thousand people become disabled each year from tobacco related illnesses.  The amount of health costs attributable to tobacco related illnesses suffered by 1.2 million people each year is enormous.  These are estimates of a 2004 study conducted by WHO.  Given the sharp increase in tobacco use since then, it can be assumed that the figures of illnesses, disabilities and deaths have increased significantly by now.  The rate of tobacco use in Bangladesh is one of the highest in the world.  More than 43 percent of the adult population use tobacco in any form including smoking and smokeless tobacco.  Rate of second hand smoking is also one of the highest in Bangladesh: 63 percent of the adults are exposed to second hand smoking in workplaces.  All these factors lead to a very high burden of tobacco in Bangladesh.  The economic costs are much higher than the gains.

The WHO FCTC has become a global treaty in the true sense of the word.  So far 186 countries have become parties to FCTC by ratifying it.  Countries after countries have been adopting tobacco control policies and measures in line with FCTC.  The Convention focuses heavily on demand reduction measures for tobacco control and outlines some important supply reduction measures as well.  The most important demand reduction measures that FCTC recommends include price and tax measures to reduce the demand for tobacco; protection from exposure to tobacco smoke; comprehensive ban on tobacco advertisement, promotion and sponsorship; effective health warnings on packets of tobacco products; and some other measures.  The supply reduction measures include curbing illicit trade of tobacco products; banning sales to and by minors; and supporting economically viably alternatives for those depending on tobacco production for livelihood.  Following ratification, parties are required to adopt these measures as outlined in the respective guidelines for different Articles of the Convention.

Article 13 of FCTC requires the parties to impose comprehensive bans on all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship (TAPS).  The exact text of the Article 13 reads: “Each Party shall, in accordance with its constitution or constitutional principles, undertake a comprehensive ban of all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.”  Further, the Article outlines what the Parties should do as a minimum for imposing the ban.  The Guidelines to Article 13 suggest specific measures that the Parties should adopt for enforcing the comprehensive ban on TAPS.

However, the tobacco industry has been very smart in using the loopholes that countries have left while adopting measures for banning TAPS.  WHO observed, “To sell a product that kills up to half of all its users requires extraordinary marketing savvy.  Tobacco manufacturers are some of the best marketers in the world – and increasingly aggressive in circumventing prohibitions on advertising, promotion and sponsorship that are designed to curb tobacco use.”  Since most of the Parties to FCTC have so far been able to impose only Partial bans on TAPS, the tobacco manufacturers have been extremely creative in circumventing those restrictions and the strategies across the world have been similar.  In tobacco manufacturer’s own words, “The creation of advertising within regulatory restraints can serve as a goad to creativity.  Prohibitions and limitations should not be allowed to discourage the cigarette advertiser, but rather exhilarate him.  To be able to meet the new confining conditions… more effectively than one’s competitors is a challenge to creativity and ingenuity.”

The Bangladesh law of 2005 banned advertising of tobacco products and that was a partial ban leaving a number of loopholes.  The tobacco companies have utilized those loopholes to promote their business with various tactics.  One of the major tactics they used was ‘point-of-sale advertising’.  Since the 2005 law allowed limited promotional activities at the point-of-sale, the companies invested heavily and the points-of-sale across the country became extremely visible advertisements of tobacco, which was no more possible in mass media or through mainstream advertising channels.  This emphasis on point-of-sale advertising is a global strategy of the tobacco companies.  The British American Tobacco, one of the largest multinational tobacco manufacturers, noted, “As primary media channels become restricted, greater emphasis must be placed on effective point of sale and parallel communications…”

As the mass media becomes restricted for tobacco advertising, the manufacturers opt for technology for alternative communications like satellite broadcasts, text messaging, Internet sales etc.  One of the major emphasis of the tobacco industry is marketing to women and kids.  A researcher of Philip Morris, another large multinational tobacco manufacturers, noted in 1981, “Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer, and the overwhelming majority of smokers first begin to smoke while in their teens … It is during the teenage years that the initial brand choice is made.”

A very common tactic that the tobacco industry applies for promotion of their products is ‘brand stretching’.  Names of famous tobacco brands are used in other products like t-shirt, cap, key-ring, mobile phone cover, clock, jacket etc, and such products are widely available in Bangladesh.  Legally it could not be addressed due to the loopholes in the law.  The tobacco companies in Bangladesh do a lot of parallel communication for reaching out to the consumers directly with leaflets, newsletters, brochures and other materials.

Sponsorship is also used as a major vehicle of tobacco promotion.  Sponsoring events by the tobacco companies are common in Bangladesh.  Since the law does not allow using brand names of tobacco products in sponsorships, the tobacco companies continue to sponsor sports and cultural events using their company names instead of the product names and thus bypassing restrictions of the law.  The most visible tobacco promotions in Bangladesh have been done in the forms of advertising activities labelled as ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR).  In recent years, numerous examples of large newspaper advertisements of CSR activities of the tobacco companies were prominently visible.  The CSR activities include supply of pure drinking water, solar energy for the poor, tree plantation and other such programs.  A couple of investigative reports in the newspaper exposed that the companies spend more in advertising the CSR than in the actual activities.  Through the CSR, the tobacco manufacturers not only maintain a good image among people, but also try to win the sympathy of the policy makers so that they do not opt for strong tobacco control measures.

The above are some of the numerous tactics that the tobacco industry uses to promote their deadly products, probably the only ‘legal’ product that kills.  The recently enacted ‘Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) (Amendment) Act, 2013’ includes strong measures to prohibit most of these promotional tactics of the tobacco industry.  The point-of-sale advertising has been completely banned along with a ban on sale of tobacco products to and by children under 18.  The law also restricts promotion of CSR activities by tobacco industry.  This implies that the tobacco companies can undertake CSR activities, but cannot advertise those using their names, symbols or trademark.  The law also restricts display of tobacco use in mass media unless it is essential for the sake of the story of a cinema, in which tobacco use can be displayed only with a display of health warnings as determined by the government.  The new law also introduces pictorial health warnings on the packets of tobacco products, which will minimize the branding impact of the tobacco products.  The use of misleading descriptors such as ‘light’, ‘low-tar’, ‘mild’, ‘extra’ with the name of tobacco products has also been banned in the new law.  As a result, the tobacco manufacturers can no longer mislead the consumers by indicating that particular variant of a tobacco product is safer.

All the above measures are useful and can play important role in reducing tobacco use, and more importantly in preventing youth from initiating tobacco use.  But a law is as good as it is enforced.  Therefore, the government must focus on effectively enforcing the amended law.  Only then can we expect some good outcomes.

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Taifur Rahman is the Advocacy and Media Coordinator (Bangladesh) at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a US based organization working in tobacco control in more than 30 countries.